The Common Good
March-April 2003

Hope for Sudan

by Jeremiah Robinson | March-April 2003

A grassroots movement stares down an oil company.

The Sudan Peace Act, signed into law last fall, was not only a victory for a grassroots movement of churches and human rights organizations. It was also a sign that there might yet be hope for Sudan.

Sudan has been in civil war since 1989, when the extremist National Islamic Front (NIF), based in the North, usurped power through a military coup. The war has been mostly one-sided, since the North has tremendous technological and economic advantages. The NIF regularly bombs and raids villages in the South, capturing women and children as concubines and slaves. NIF forces also burn crops and force residents out of farming areas to promote "ethnic cleansing" through famine. More than 2 million Sudanese have died and more than 4 million are displaced. In 2000, the U.S. Holocaust Museum issued a "genocide warning" for Sudan, the first time it has done so for a country outside of Europe.

In response to the suffering, individuals and religious and human rights groups in the United States and Canada began protesting and lobbying their governments. The movement overcame intense State Department resistance to get passage of the Sudan Peace Act. The act downgrades diplomatic relations with the NIF, opposes international loans, seeks a U.N. arms embargo, and initiates the formation of multilateral efforts to deny the NIF access to oil revenue. These terms come into effect six months after any time the NIF decides to abandon peace talks. The bill also authorizes $300 million in humanitarian nonmilitary aid to southern Sudan. It is not perfect: Many are concerned that the act allows U.S. funding for the southern Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement, which could fuel the conflict rather than encourage a negotiated peace.

Currently, the NIF and the Peoples' Liberation Movement are holding serious peace talks for the first time. The talks have allowed aid workers to reach many previously inaccessible war-torn regions.

The National Islamic Front buys its arms with oil revenue from operations that it controls in the South, operations that until recently included a 25 percent stake owned by Canada's Talisman Energy. Activists targeted Talisman to force it to close up operations in Sudan. People divested stock, wrote company executives, and asked their church organizations, local and state governments, and retirement funds to divest as well. Organizations that divested include the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Methodist Churches, a national teachers' retirement organization, and nearly all state government pension plans. Talisman had to initiate a buyback at a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. In January, Talisman sold its stake to an oil company based in India. When Talisman left, the NIF lost a tremendous amount of Western infrastructure, technology, and money. Since then, the Sudanese Presbyterian Church and others have filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Talisman and the NIF for violations of international human rights law, to serve as a deterrent to future abuses.

The success of the campaign against Talisman sends an unmistakable message to all global corporations: Human rights abuses may very well carry an unsustainable economic price. If the lawsuit succeeds, it will double the blow to the culture of corporate invincibility.

In a time when global corporations seem to rule the world, and when so few in power seem to care about the poor or oppressed, the extraordinary success of this grassroots campaign lights a thin flame in the thick darkness. It reminds us to hope.

—Jeremiah Robinson

Jeremiah Robinson is the circulation intern at Sojourners.

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