WASHINGTON — Adopting a tactic that helped to bring down the apartheid government in South Africa, a grass-roots coalition of religious and secular organizations appealed to Americans on Wednesday to pressure their pension funds, mutual funds and local governments to get rid of stock in companies doing business with Sudan's often-brutal regime.
"Millions of Americans have become unwitting partners in slavery and genocide in Sudan through their pension funds and mutual funds," said Charles Jacobs, director of the Sudan Campaign, a suburban Virginia-based umbrella organization established to spotlight atrocities in the African nation. Sudan has been classed by activist groups and the Clinton administration as probably the world's worst abuser of human rights.
Jacobs told a Capitol Hill news conference that the divestiture effort will concentrate on companies developing Sudan's newly discovered oil fields, which finance a government accused of atrocities ranging from the deliberate bombing of churches and hospitals to complicity in the slave trade.
Two of the government's major partners--Talisman Energy of Canada and PetroChina, a company owned by the Chinese government--are listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
In addition, London-based BP Amoco holds a stake in PetroChina. The French oil company Totalfina also has important investments in Sudan.
"There can be no neutral shareholders of Talisman Energy or PetroChina or of BP Amoco," said Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has studied the use of U.S. capital markets to finance the Sudanese government.
Reeves also called for a retail boycott of BP Amoco, the only firm linked to Sudan that sells products to the U.S. public.
Ian Fowler, a spokesman for BP Amoco in New York, said the company does not do business in Sudan and has no intention of starting.
"What the protesters are objecting to is [that] we have a 2% holding in PetroChina, whose parent company does business in Sudan," Fowler said. "This is a pretty long link away from the Sudan situation."
The Muslim-controlled Sudanese government is engaged in a 17-year civil war against rebels, mostly Christians and followers of indigenous African religions who are concentrated in the southern part of the country. The government maintains that about 1 million people have been killed in the war. U.S. human rights groups put the death toll at 2 million or more, most of them civilian followers of minority religions.
By either count, the Sudanese conflict has claimed more lives than the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Somalia and Sierra Leone combined.
The Clinton administration has put Sudan on its list of countries supporting terrorism and has imposed economic sanctions against the regime. The administration's most recent report on religious persecution said the Sudanese government forces Christians and adherents of African religions to convert to Islam under threat of death, condones a slave trade that preys on Christians and is engaged in a concerted effort to wipe out non-Muslim religions and even a minority Muslim sect.
But Jacobs said the administration seems to have had little impact on the Sudanese regime. He said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lamented during a recent meeting that atrocities in Sudan are "not marketable to the American public," meaning that they do not produce the same sort of reaction that pictures of armless and legless babies in Sierra Leone seem to do.
Religious persecution in Sudan has been an issue for conservative Christian groups in the U.S. for several years. But opponents of the regime recently have broadened their base. The Sudan Campaign now includes secular groups, among them the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, a liberal civil rights organization, and the Family Research Council, founded by Gary Bauer, a conservative Republican and former presidential hopeful.
The campaign also includes diverse religious groups, such as the Washington branch of the American Jewish Committee, several predominantly African American churches and the Salvation Army.