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Who says student activism is dead?

Thursday, April 7, 2005

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Written by Rebecca Hamilton (DAG)

THE CYNICS of our time should heed two striking events that occurred this week in relation to the ongoing atrocities in Darfur. First, for the only time since the tobacco cases and the apartheid era, Harvard University has acted on purely moral grounds, divesting itself of shares in a company that supports the government of Sudan. Second, a mechanism has been launched enabling private citizens to take action to stop genocide if their governments don't. The driving force behind such unprecedented occurrences? A bunch of 20-year-old students who believe we must make real our promise of ''never again" to protect civilians in Darfur.

On Monday, Harvard announced that despite the ''strong presumption against divestment for reasons unrelated to investment purposes" it would take the rare step to divest itself on moral grounds of the $4.4 million worth of shares it held in PetroChina. Citing a recent report to the British Parliament that estimates the death toll in the Darfur region of Sudan to be at least 300,000, the Harvard Corporation stated that its decision reflected deep concerns about the extensive role of PetroChina's closely affiliated parent company, China National Petroleum Corporation, as a leading partner of the Sudanese government in the production of oil in Sudan.

The report of the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility noted that ''oil production is widely understood to be a crucial source of revenue for the Sudanese government, essential to the government's capacity to fund military operations, and an asset of exceptional strategic importance to the regime."

It is appropriate that the Ivy League institution and its president, Lawrence Summers, should now bask in the positive publicity for having taken such a responsible role; indeed, one that sets an example for universities around the country. However, the real praise rightly belongs to those idealistic twentysomethings who dared to believe that they could persuade Harvard to take this step. Their campaign to take on the impenetrable Harvard Corporation began last year, and they have shown themselves to be the true leaders.

Slowly but surely, the students built up a coalition that could not be ignored. A combination of tactics -- carefully researched memos to the board, persistent lobbying, behind-the-scenes assistance from faculty, and traditional visible activism -- culminated with a protest Monday morning. Hundreds of students dressed in black, carrying the symbolic green signs for Darfur marched silently to the site of the corporation's meeting. When the announcement to divest was made, a student gospel choir broke into song.

As it turns out, the Harvard student activists are not alone. Another group of students from Swarthmore College came up with the audacious idea that if their government wasn't going to stop the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, then they would have to take on the task themselves. Today they are launching the Genocide Intervention Fund. Through the fund, private citizens can donate money to support the peacekeeping efforts of the African Union forces. Two years into the crisis, these troops remain the only people standing between civilians and their killers on the ground in Darfur. The Genocide Intervention Fund raises money for civilian protection rather than for humanitarian aid, since aid is no help to a dead civilian and relief agencies continue to claim that they are being prevented from delivering food aid due to insecurity.

While the concept remains controversial, there is nothing student-like about the manner in which it is being executed. The students behind the fund have managed to gain the endorsement and expertise of many influential individuals, from politicians on both sides of the aisle to Juan Mendez, UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, and Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group.

Only time will tell the ultimate impact of student activism for Darfur. However the lesson from this week is clear: Leadership can come from unexpected sources, and before the cynics criticize the idealism of youth, they should look to these students to see how, with intelligent and savvy execution, ideals can be transformed into reality.

  • Rebecca Hamilton is a joint degree student at Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She worked in Sudan last year and is a cofounder of the Darfur Action Group.
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