Here’s what Eric Cohen, the chairperson of Investors Against Genocide, told a Congressional hearing recently:
It has been over 12 years since the U.S. imposed sanctions on Sudan and noted serious human rights abuses, seven years since the Darfur genocide began, six years since Congress declared it a genocide, and five years since the movement for targeted divestment from Sudan began. Yet most financial institutions are still investing in the worst companies funding the genocide, and, through the fund offerings of these investment firms, millions of Americans are caught in the web of these problem investments, almost always unknowingly and without the possibility of choosing.
Tragically, he’s got a point. Better, he’s got a proposal – a requirement that mutual funds disclose whether they chose to be “genocide-free,” which is simpler than it sounds. Better yet, he had a receptive audience on Capitol Hill – Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York and Gary Miller of California, who are the chairman and ranking member of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Financial Services, as well as such interested legislators as Mike Capuano of Massachusetts, who has been active on Sudan issues. Congress could act to mandate fuller disclosure from the mutual fund industry next year.
Investors Against Genocide has been campaigning against money management firms that own stock in companies that do business in Sudan since 2006. (See Fidelity’s Sudan Problem at fortune.com and Fidelity, Vanguard and the genocide in Darfur) The group has asked financial institutions to avoid investments in foreign firms that are known to substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity, an approach it calls “genocide-free investing.” (Sanctions prevent U.S. companies from operating in Sudan.) Socially responsible mutual fund families Calvert Investments and Domini Social Investments have also taken a leadership role, cleansing their portfolios of companies doing business in Sudan and asking others to do so. As Domini’s general counsel, Adam Kazner, told the subcommittee:
Investors are not simply passive actors in this system – they are playing a critical capital allocation role, and should be mindful of the implications of their investment decisions.
Congress has stepped up to the plate before. In 2007, it passed the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act, or SADA, which prohibits the government from contracting with companies doing business in Sudan and supports state and local divestment efforts. Thirty-five U.S. states have enacted legislation or adopted policies affecting investments related to Sudan, primarily in response to the Darfur crisis and Sudan’s designation by the U.S. government as a state sponsor of terrorism.
So what’s the problem? Essentially this: A small group of foreign companies continue to operate in Sudan. According to Cohen:
In Sudan, the CNPC group (including PetroChina), the Sinopec group, Petronas, and ONGC are internationally recognized as providing the government of Sudan with the funding needed to support the genocide in Darfur. The government of Sudan has used 70 percent of its oil revenue to provide arms and funding for the genocide. Some of these same problem companies are also active in Burma and Iran.
Some U.S.-based mutual funds then invest in those companies. Fidelity, Vanguard and Franklin Templeton have been singled out by Investors Against Genocide for holding shares in Chinese oil companies.
No one from the fund industry testified before Congress. Fidelity has said that stopping the genocide is a matter for government officials, not mutual fund managers, while Vanguard has said it has a human rights policy, while continuing to invest in companies doing business in Sudan.
Shareholder proposals calling for divestment were defeated at Vanguard and Fidelity funds, but that’s no surprise since most mutual funds investors automatically vote their proxies with managements. It’s safe to say that most investors would rather not see even a tiny fraction of their money supporting genocide in Sudan, or winding its way to Iran or Burma, with their terrible human rights records.
Investors Against Genocide has scored a couple of big victories. TIAA-CREF, to its great credit, first lobbied the Chinese oil firms to get out of Sudan and then sold its holdings. (Here’s the fund’s announcement.) The American Funds group also sold its stock in PetroChina, but did so without explanation. Cohen told me: “I congratulate them even though they won’t say anything publicly.”
Some investors have taken note. Last May, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Board of Trustees announced that it would end a 10-year relationship with Fidelity and move their $178 million retirement accounts to TIAA-CREF in order to be genocide-free.
You can read all the testimony, as well as a GAO report on the issue, here. Cohen’s testimony provides specifics on how genocide-free disclosure would work. Mutual funds would be required to disclose if they have a policy prohibiting investments in countries that have been subject to U.S. government sanctions for human rights violations. Right now, they report on their holdings only once a quarter, and their human rights policies, if any, can be hard to find.
Says Cohen: “Right now you need a doctorate in research to have a clue about who’s on what side.”
This seems like a classic example of investors’ right to know. Transparency would shed some light on the values of the investment firm, and we can hope that markets would do the rest.
Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at FORTUNE magazine, a senior writer at Greenbiz.com, and a lead blogger at The Energy Collective. His own blog is called The Business of Sustainability, where a version of this blog post originally appeared.