Boston: New York-based Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF) has become the first large US fund complex to sell stakes in a group of Asian energy firms over human rights concerns in Sudan.

Human rights concerns: A file photo of an African Union soldier at a village in Darfur, Sudan. The nation’s government is accused of war crimes stemming from the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region. Karl Maier / Bloomberg

The sales of shares of China’s PetroChina Co. Ltd, CNPC (Hong Kong) Ltd and Sinopec Corp., and India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd (ONGC) totalled around $60 million (Rs277 crore), TIAA-CREF said on Monday.

The stakes sold were just a small slice of TIAA-CREF’s assets under management, which stood at $402 billion at the end of September, and a tiny percentage of the oil companies’ market capitalization.

Still, the move could put more pressure on the firms over their business ties with Sudan’s government, which is widely accused of war crimes.

The move by TIAA-CREF, which provides financial services to non-profit organizations such as hospitals and universities, also marks a milestone for rights activists who have tried for years, mostly in vain, to line up the influential fund industry behind its social agenda.

“We hope this could send a strong message to the companies," said Hye-Won Choi, TIAA-CREF’s head of corporate governance. She said her firm had sold the shares only after talks with the energy companies went nowhere.

ONGC said it was concerned about TIAA-CREF’S move, but the firm’s business in Sudan would continue. ONGC, which leads India’s hunt for foreign petroleum assets, entered Sudan about seven years ago, buying a 25% stake in the Greater Nile Project, from which Canada’s Talisman Energy Inc. exited under pressure from human rights group.

Talisman had said that political risks, which had pressured the firm’s stock price, outweighed impressive financial returns, but such concerns have not deterred ONGC, which also bought stakes in Sudnese blocks from Austrian energy group OMV AG.

“This will not impact our investment decision in Sudan," ONGC chairman R.S. Sharma said, reacting to TIAA-CREF’s move. “Our operations area is away from any disturbed activity area. Secondly, we are very much conscious that we do not support suppressive activities. Any investor group withdrawing support causes pain and concern."

“We always believe engagement is far more effective than divestment," Choi said, noting that TIAA-CREF did not sell shares of companies doing business in South Africa in the 1980s, the last major public effort to promote divestment. “However, in this situation, engagement was not effective, and we believed the gravity and magnitude of the situation in Sudan required a different response."

The companies are among those whose royalty payments activists blame for propping up Sudan’s government. The International Criminal Court has charged the nation’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, with crimes against humanity and war crimes stemming from the ongoing conflict in the country’s western Darfur region.

Asked about the sales, a Sinopec spokesperson said: “Investors make rational judgements based on value. If some sell, others will buy." The other companies were not immediately available for comment on Monday.

Many US universities, state pension funds and other organizations have sold shares of the firms, hoping to put pressure on the central government in Khartoum.

However, large mutual fund firms, including Fidelity Investments and Vanguard Group Inc., have resisted calls to do the same. Some said their investments could create leverage to improve conditions in troubled countries.