UT System should divest from companies supporting genocide in Sudan

Ali Breland

After 11 years of war, human rights violations and genocide, the conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur persists. A brief cease-fire brought temporary peace to the area, but 2014 has ushered in a flare-up of atrocities in the region. The International Criminal Court has charged Omar al-Bashir, the current president of Sudan, with three counts of genocide

That genocide has claimed the lives of 400,000 Sudanese and displaced millions more, yet, despite international outcry against the atrocities in Sudan, the UT System continues to maintain its financial holdings in companies involved in Sudan — companies that contribute to the country’s genocide.

The University of Texas Investment Management Co., known as UTIMCO, manages the System’s $20 billion endowment. According to a 2011 Texas Observer article, roughly $5 million of the endowment is invested in companies that have directly helped contribute to Sudanese genocide (although that number may have changed since then). Companies on the list include PetroChina, which has bought oil from the Sudanese government, thereby indirectly contributing to the state-sponsored slaughter of non-Arabs in the Darfur region, and Dongfeng Motor Co., a company that has sold military equipment to Sudanese militias. 

UTIMCO’s dirty investments have led me to start Texans Against Genocide, a group founded with the intention of trying to get UTIMCO to draw the line at genocide, an incontrovertibly bad thing.

Bruce Zimmerman, the chief executive officer and chief investment officer of UTIMCO, is clearly good at the financial side of his job. He has grown the endowment tremendously, and as of 2011 he has regularly beaten general market returns. Regardless, good business doesn’t make good ethics.

Zimmerman declined to comment for this piece.

Zimmerman has said in the past that UTIMCO doesn’t “take social or political concerns into account.” He has said that factoring social responsibility into UTIMCO’s investment could lead to a slippery slope of investment restrictions that could potentially hurt the fund.

Zimmerman told the Observer in 2011, “What you’ll learn in Econ 101 is any externality has an economic cost. That’s not a presumption. It’s an economic reality.”

Zimmerman is right. Taking ethics into account does make investing harder but does not make it impossible. In the last decade, several universities, including Harvard, Stanford and Yale, among others, have divested or eliminated their holdings from companies linked to the genocide in Sudan. These colleges have endowments comparable to UT’s, and show that an endowment can still thrive while making ethically sound investments.

Moreover, the logic that a business’ sole responsibility is to make a profit, irrespective of its social or ethical cost, is riddled with problems. Ostensibly, we hold human beings to a general set of normative ethical and social standards. We expect people to respect our autonomy and not to hurt us or do generally bad things. The idea that a group of people working together to make money is somehow exempt from these standards doesn’t make sense. If I personally gave a government committing genocide millions of dollars and military supplies, you could call me a bad person. UTIMCO participating in these sorts of investments for the betterment of the UT System doesn’t absolve it from this. It just makes it opportunistic.

Obviously, issues like this aren’t cut-and-dried. If UTIMCO is forced to invest in accordance with sound ethics, the group could lose out on potentially lucrative investments. But while investment in morally gray areas, such as tobacco and fossil fuels, is up for debate, an investment in genocide is not.

We can avoid Zimmerman’s slippery slope by making it clear that we draw the line at mass murder. Right now, the UT System doesn’t draw the law line anywhere. Until it does, it implicitly supports genocide.

Breland is a Plan II senior from Houston and the president of Texans Against Genocide, an organization founded in the interest of getting UT to divest its endowment from corporations that fund or facilitate genocide.