Simon Billenness founded the CSR Strategy Group to offer non-profits, trade unions, and socially responsible investors expertise in creating and implementing effective campaigns to fundamentally change behavior of politicians and major corporations. We are experienced advocates for environmental sustainability, human rights, good corporate governance, and social justice.
How Universities Can Join the Movement to End Genocide
How can you make your university take action to end genocide?
Students and faculty have an honorable tradition of organizing to uphold human rights. By organizing to persuade your university to enact a policy to end genocide, you are following in the footsteps of similar campaigns, such as the South Africa anti-apartheid movement (1980s), Free Burma movement (1990s), Save Darfur campaign (2000s), and fossil fuel divestment movement (today).
International Campaign for the Rohingya and STAND, the student-led movement to end mass atrocities, have developed a campaign for students and faculty to press their university to enact a comprehensive campus policy to help end genocide. The campaign focuses on harnessing how the university uses the power of its investments and the power of its purchasing.
Universities as investors
Educational institutions invest trillions of dollars, primarily through their endowments. As shareholders, universities are partial owners of thousands of publicly traded companies. Through those ownership stakes, unviersities can put pressure on corporations to stop doing business with governments engaged in genocide. This kind of shareholder activism can be more powerful than selling – or divesting – stock in companies.
Does your university own stock in Chevron? It likely does because Chevron is a very widely held company. For two years, shareholders of Chevron filed a shareholder resolution putting pressure on the oil company, the largest U.S. investor in Burma (Myanmar), to adopt a policy of not doing business with government engaged in genocide or crimes against humanity. In 2017 and 2018, that resolution received the votes of approximately 6% of shareholders at Chevron’s annual shareholder meeting.
In response to this pressure, Chevron has raised issues of human rights directly with the Burmese government. This year, shareholders reached an agreement with Chevron to drop the resolution in return for a dialogue with Chevron over what companies can do to pressure governments engaged in or at risk of commiting genocide and/or mass atrocities.
International Campaign for the Rohingya is working with shareholders owning over $50 billion in assets to put pressure on all of the oil companies in Burma. This shareholder group has also pressed major jewelry retailers not to buy gems that profit the Burmese army. This Fall, investors will engage Western Union, which is in partnership with a bank controlled by Burma’s army.
How can you successfully press your university to join the growing number of shareholders taking action to end genocide? You can start by asking your university treasurer some key questions.
- What stocks does the university own? Does it own Chevron or Western Union?
Many educational institutions, especially public universities, make public their stock holdings. Many others will simply provide that information on request. Some will only reveal their holdings after feeling pressure from a campaign asking for disclosure.
Zero in on your university’s direct holdings of shares. Those are shares that your university owns outright and can vote in favor of shareholder resolutions such as the one at Chevron.
- Does the university have a policy guiding how it votes its shares?
Some universities have developed a policy guiding how they vote their shares on resolutions raising environmental, social, and governances (ESG) issues. Ask for a copy of the current policy and request that it include a provision that the university vote in favor of resolutions asking companies to adopt a policy of not doing business with governments engaged in genocide or crimes against humanity.
- How has the university voted its shares in the past?
Some universities publish a report showing how they voted on each shareholder resolution. Whether this is public or not, find out whether your university held Chevron stock in 2017 and, if so, how it voted those shares on the resolution in 2017 and 2018 pressing the company to adopt a policy of not doing business with governments engaged in genocide or crimes against humanity.
- Does the university work with other shareholders to promote corporate responsibility?
Some universities are members of US SIF – The Forum for Sustainable and Reponsible Investment, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the Principles for Responsible Investment, or the Council of Institutional Investors. If your university is a member, ask what help and resources they are receiving to address issues concerning ending genocide.
- Would the university adopt a formal policy of using its investments to help end genocide?
Ask your university to join the growing “No Business With Genocide” campaign. International Campaign for the Rohingya is working with a growing coalition of investors and NGOs. We are ready to work with you and your university to develop policies and practices that help end the genocide of the Rohingya.
- How can students and faculty influence the university’s investment policies and practices?
Some universities, such as Harvard, have an advisory committee on shareholder responsibility that helps develop policies and practices. Ask to participate.
If your university lacks such an avenue to influence its investments, launch a campaign to pass a resolution in your student government, faculty council, and/or board of trustees. Develop petitions and hold rallies. Meet with your university administration. Use every pressure point to persuade your university to step up and help end genocide.
The Responsible Endowments Coalition publishes how-to guides for students and faculty on university endowments, divestment, and shareholder advocacy. Read them to prepare yourselves on how to best influence your university to help end genocide.
Universities as purchasers
Universities buy billions of dollars of goods and services from corporations from around the world. That enormous purchasing power can be used to press companies to adopt a policy of not doing business with governments engaged in genocide and/or mass atrocities.
Again, there are powerful examples of how students and faculty have successfully influenced their university’s purchasing policy. The Conflict-Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) is a joint initiative of the Enough Project and STAND, the student-led movement to end mass atrocities. By encouraging universities, which are large purchasers of electronics and powerful spokespersons, to commit to measures that pressure electronics companies to responsibly invest in Congo’s minerals sector, students are voicing the demand for conflict-free products from Congo.
How can a university use its purchasing power to help end genocide?
A university can, in its purchasing RFPs and contracts, require contractors to disclose any company policies regarding doing business with governments engaged in genocide and/or crimes against humanity.
A university can also in its purchasing RFPs and contracts further require contractors, within two years, to have a written and formally adopted company policy stating that they will not do business with governments engaged in genocide and/or crimes against humanity.
These provisions can apply to any contractor with the university with annual revenues of a certain amount, such as $100 million or greater.
This article was previously published by the International Campaign for the Rohingya.
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