Darfur dreams

Darfur dreams

Dream for Darfur, a New York-based human rights project group, released a detailed report last week on the lack of concern for the genocide in Darfur among multinational brand names such as Microsoft, Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonalds and General Electric. The group had asked 19 companies sponsoring the 2008 Olympic Games to urge Beijing to publicly acknowledge the full extent of the human devastation due to the state-bred racial atrocities in Darfur. And to pressurize the Sudanese government to resolve the humanitarian crisis using the huge influence that Beijing has as oil-rich Sudan’s largest oil customer.

The Dream for Darfur group got very poor responses from most of the companies, which —the group points out—otherwise make explicit claims of their corporate social responsibility. Its advocacy has not resulted in any of the 19 companies agreeing to take a strong stand against the Chinese government. Their main argument was that the Darfur crisis was best handled at the UN and governmental level.

This response is not a surprise, even though many of them have also voluntarily committed to the UN’s Global Compact principles—which say that a business should support and respect the protection of human rights and ensure it is not complicit in human rights abuses.

It is true that events in Darfur—and Myanmar—are increasingly triggering tighter scrutiny of the role of business in human rights protection/abuse. But the reality is that there are limitations to the distance a corporate citizen of the globalized world will actually travel on the path of social responsibility. As David Vogel lucidly analysed in his book, The Market for Virtue, corporate social responsibility is limited by the significant costs of more responsible business behaviour. Thus at some point, businesses will choose between doing what seems ethically right and what is most profitable—as defined by shareholders today.

So, China being the single largest market for many of these companies, they find themselves in no position to overtly criticize the Chinese government—even given the fact of its oil investments and arms supply being the mainstay of the Sudanese crisis or the racial atrocities of the Janjaweed—the Khartoum-supported Arab militia engaged in ethnic cleansing of the largely African tribal communities of Darfur.

Here, the true perspective— however harsh—is important to note. Of the three prime actors in this story—activists, companies and governments —it may be only the first group that is not driven by its own economic/strategic interests in dealing with humanitarian crises. So, even as there is growing activist argument that effective economic pressure is a must—that Beijing must use it on Khartoum—the US is careful not to alienate China on the matter. Naturally, its relations with China are of prime importance to it. Also, even as the Bush government argued for sanctions stopping Sudan oil exports— that one act, if accepted, in the UN Security Council could put real pressure on Khartoum—it does not really want to block that oil in the current high price environment.

Finally, let’s not forget that the Darfur genocide has its root cause in the unending thirst for oil. What China’s state-owned oil firms Sinopec and PetroChina—and indeed Indian public sector oil companies along with Malaysia’s —did is aggravate an existing conflict. It was when Chevron found oil in southern Sudan in 1978 that Khartoum redrew boundaries to claim the oil for the Arab-led north and the 21-year-old civil war began.

The dream for Darfur might still come true. Oil giants of the West had backed off from Sudan under acute public pressure—though they must be waiting to get back into action. Public scrutiny might yet make governments, and firms, help end the misery in Darfur.

Can public pressure bring an end to the Darfur crisis? Write to us at views@livemint.com