On a blazing spring day in New York's financial district, as executives hurry past in suits and ties, a handful of protestors position themselves directly in front of the headquarters [sic] of Fidelity, one of the leading investment firms in the United States. [Fidelity is officially based in Boston. - EJM]
Carrying signs that read "Don't Invest Our Money in Genocide" and distributing literature charging the company with business practices that have contributed to the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of western Sudan, the protestors are amongst those supporting the 'Global Days for Darfur'.
This campaign started [on] Apr. 23 and ends Monday; it has seen activists, politicians, musicians, celebrities and others from around the world stage a series of events to highlight violence being committed in Darfur against non-Arab ethnic groups by the regime of President Omar al-Bashir, and the government-aligned Janjaweed militia. To date the crisis has elicited an agonisingly slow response from global leaders, despite being reliably blamed for between 200,000 and 450,000 deaths (mainly civilians) since 2003, when the conflict began in earnest.
"Sudan is able to be recalcitrant and thumb its nose at the entire international community because it's making a lot of profit from its oil, which is being developed by China," says Helga Moor, a member of the Darfur Vigil Group, as she hands out leaflets to passersby. "We want to show Sudan that the people of the world are outraged, and that they are willing to pull their money out of enterprises that support this murderous regime."
Activists believe [that] these enterprises include Fidelity, in its capacity as the largest single shareholder of PetroChina Company, a subsidiary of the state-controlled China National Petroleum Corporation.
PetroChina owns a major stake in Sudan's national oil consortia and maintains extensive operations there. To help meet its ravenous demand for fuel, China purchased more than half of Sudan's oil exports in 2005; critics charge that the profits from these sales enabled the Khartoum government to buy weapons with which to continue its military operations -- both directly and by proxy -- in Darfur.
Modeled on divestment campaigns that targeted apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s, the Darfur disinvestment initiative has scored some notable successes in recent months.
In April of this year, the British aerospace firm, Rolls-Royce, announced that it was pulling out of Sudan, citing human rights concerns. Rolls-Royce had supplied engines to oil firms in Sudan for the last five years.
The firm's move followed that of two of Europe's largest companies, German engineering giant Siemens and the Switzerland-based ABB Limited energy company, which both announced plans to withdraw from Sudan in the past year.
The 'Global Days for Darfur' campaign comes as the situation in this region appears more tangled and complex with each passing week.
Initially, the crisis was posited as government's response to two rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the larger Sudan Liberation Movement, which were waging war against Khartoum for its alleged victimisation of non-Arab residents in Darfur. The chaos engulfing Darfur has since grown in intensity and scope, however.
Sudanese military and Janjaweed forces are accused of carrying out war crimes against civilian populations in the region, while the rebel groups themselves have splintered and reformed with dizzying speed, and in an ever-shifting array of alliances. Various peace agreements between the sides lie in tatters.
Addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2004 after a visit to Sudan, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that "genocide has been committed" in Darfur, and denounced what he charged was a "consistent and widespread" pattern of atrocities against civilians there.
During recent months, the fighting has also spilled over Sudan's borders into neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. In March 2007, Janjaweed forces crossing into Chad were said to have killed up to 400 people in villages in that country's border region with Sudan.
"The refugee situation has gotten steadily worse," says Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International -- a Washington-based organisation that works to generate humanitarian assistance and protection for displaced people around the world, including those in Darfur. "Darfur remains very insecure and is getting less secure. We have not achieved a political solution to the problem."
Late last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that al-Bashir had agreed that a joint U.N.-African Union (AU) peacekeeping force could be deployed rapidly throughout the region -- this to bolster the small and poorly-equipped AU mission already in place.
However, the al-Bashir government also agreed in November to a U.N. plan to strengthen the AU force, only to drag its feet with implementation.
The United States and Great Britain have since been hammering out a proposal demanding that international sanctions be introduced against the Sudanese regime, if it fails to open its doors to U.N. troops. The punitive steps would include the possibility of a no-fly zone over Darfur to prevent Sudanese military aircraft from attacking civilian targets on the ground.
With the crisis having been labeled a genocide, there would appear to be broad international cover for the U.N. to act.
Article One of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that parties adhering to the convention must "undertake to prevent and to punish" genocide, "whether committed in time of peace or in time of war."
Article Five of the same convention states that signatories must "undertake to enact, in accordance with their respective Constitutions, the necessary legislation to give effect to the provisions of the present Convention, and, in particular, to provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide."
In the meantime, Darfur activists are vowing to continue with their campaign to make the world aware of the suffering of people there.
At a recent multi-faith noontime service at Saint Peter's Church in New York, hundreds gathered to listen to Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, as well as a Holocaust survivor and a noted jazz musician, all demanding an end to the bloodshed in Darfur.
"As artists, I think [that] it's incumbent upon us to bring awareness to this crisis situation all over the world," said T.K. Blue, also known as Talib Kibwe, a noted jazz saxophonist, flautist and composer, as he prepared to perform at the event. He played one of his melancholy signature numbers, 'A Single Tear of Remembrance', and dedicated it to the people of Darfur.
"What happens a lot of times with crises in Africa is that the world sits by silently," Kibwe observed. "So I think [that] it's important to make people aware with this situation that we have to do something now, because people are dying every day."
Michael Deibert is author of 'Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti'. His blog of opinion and journalism can be visited at www.michaeldeibert.blogspot.com.