Unethical Investing

October 1, 2007
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Eric Cohen

Most thoughtful, knowledgeable people believe that in the face of genocide, there are limits to business as usual. Who would have supported the idea of investing in companies that sought to make a profit by selling Zyklon-B gas to the Nazis or machetes for the genocide in Rwanda? Though stories continue to surface about companies that profited doing business with the Third Reich, we assure ourselves that this problem is behind us. IBM sold and maintained technology that let the Nazis keep track of Jews and plunder; GM had a booming business with Opel providing vehicles to the Nazis; Swiss banks aided in seizing Jewish assets. Today, however, we consider these business practices a tragic aberration from a distant and dark past. We assume that only some fringe or outlaw company would seek to profit from genocide.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in December 1948. One hundred and thirty seven nations have adopted the Convention, including the United States in 1988. In September 2005, United Nations members voted unanimously to accept the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, pledging to take action through the Security Council when national authorities fail. These formal international agreements, coupled with the experience of the horrors of the twentieth century, support our belief that, when it comes to genocide, we recognize the immorality of collusion, the danger of silence, and the consequences of indifference, and accept the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable from the very worst crimes against humanity. But the reality of the 21st century is that neither the U.N. nor the United States have taken decisive action to fulfill the responsibility to protect the people of Darfur, and China has been blocking effective action by the U.N. Security Council.

The government of Sudan continues to pursue genocide in Darfur. Sudan’s oil industry is that government’s main source of income, and Sudan uses 70 to 80 percent of its oil-related revenue to arm and fund the military and the Janjaweed militia. Oil revenue funds the genocide; it does not economically benefit the poor people of Sudan.

Sudan relies on foreign companies as partners in its oil industry. Its largest partner is CNPC, a Chinese government-owned oil company that raises capital by selling shares of its closely related subsidiary, PetroChina. Other major partners include Sinopec (China), ONGC (India), and Petronas (Malaysia). These four oil companies are the worst offenders, funding the genocide in Darfur.

Financial institutions such as Fidelity Investments, Berkshire Hathaway, Franklin Templeton, American Funds, and Vanguard are major investors in these oil companies. As a result, when ordinary investors — like me and you — entrust our family savings and pension plans to these financial institutions, we may be inadvertently investing in genocide.

When confronted with the problem of investing in genocide, Fidelity responds with scripted comments, noteworthy for their cold detachment:

·“Fidelity portfolio managers make their investment decisions based on business and financial considerations, and take into account other issues only if they materially impact these considerations or conflict with applicable legal standards.”

·“We believe the resolution of complex social and political issues must be left to the appropriate authorities of the world that have the responsibility, and capability, to address important matters of this type. And we would sincerely hope that they would do so wisely on behalf of all of the citizens of the globe.”

For Fidelity, no human rights problems are to be considered in their investment decisions, not even when they impact some of the worst mass atrocities and most egregious violations of human rights on the planet. Unfortunately, Fidelity’s responses reflect the position of many major investment firms. Confronted with the specter of investing in genocide, many firms ignore the moral issues. No ethical guidelines regulate the investment choices of the largest mutual fund companies or their investment managers.

In faraway Darfur, every day is beset by a horrible madness of genocide and atrocities. Here in America, it is a different type of madness that allows many of the best- known and most respected financial institutions to operate as if it were “okay” to invest in genocide.

Individuals can help make the slogan “never again!” real by insisting that in the face of genocide, there are limits to “business as usual.” As a Fidelity customer, I was shocked to discover that we had entrusted our family’s savings to a firm that was investing in companies helping to fund genocide. Now, more than 150,000 people have objected to Fidelity and other institutions that invest in companies that fund the genocide in Darfur.

Please speak out. These investment firms care about their public image. Tell your mutual fund or investment company that you will not do business with them unless they divest. If even larger numbers of citizens and customers insist on genocide-free investments, that message will be heard, not only by the investment firms, but also by the oil companies funding Khartoum and by the government of Sudan.

After all, in the face of genocide, each of us has a responsibility to act.

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Eric Cohen is the Chairperson of Investors Against Genocide, the successor group to the FidelityOutOfSudan.com campaign, and Co-chair of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur. For more information on genocide-free investing, divestment from Sudan, and the Basic Principle for Ethical Investing, visit InvestorsAgainst-Genocide.org. Prior to focusing his energies on Darfur, Cohen was a corporate vice president in information technology. He and his family are long-term residents of Lexington, Massachusetts.

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