FAYYAD SBAIHAT, Badger Herald, Mar 3, 2005
The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents has adopted a series of guidelines to regulate the $330 million UW trust fund.
The trust and investment policies are meant to prevent the university’s money from being invested in companies whose business is deemed unethical or immoral.
These policies have governed and informed decisions pertaining to the portfolio at some times but have been ignored on other occasions. Trust and investment policy 78-1 states rapid divestment should be carried out “in any company, corporation, subsidiary or affiliate which practices or condones through its actions discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, creed or sex … ”
The state attorney general established in 1978 that all investments of the UW trust fund made into South Africa or companies that contracted with the apartheid regime were in violation of this policy and, subsequently, the Board of Regents divested the fund from all such investment.
Divestment from South Africa was carried out because that government implemented a system of apartheid and ethnic discrimination. Black South Africans were pushed into small, isolated Bantustans surrounded by walls and fences, forced to live in poverty and exploited by the white colonialist minority.
Some companies targeted with divestment provided the apartheid regime with equipment and services that were directly used to subjugate the oppressed black population and foster discrimination; others condoned such practices by dealing with the regime and strengthening the very economy that drove these cruel, racist policies. When the divestment effort was joined by a number of other academic, religious and community institutions, it contributed to ending the apartheid regime in South Africa.
In 1997, prompted by human-rights abuses in Burma, the regents adopted a new policy that regulates investments in companies whose products contribute to or cause social injury. Policy 97-1 classifies as socially irresponsible investments in companies whose “corporate policies or practices that are discriminatory … or cause substantial social injury.”
Today, the regents are requested to make a decision on investments in corporations whose products and services cause or allow for grave human-rights abuses around the world — most prominently, those perpetrated by Israel against the civilian Palestinian population.
Unfortunately, in a recent statement, Board of Regents President Toby Marcovich described the calls for divestment from Israel as political. Indeed, Mr. Marcovich’s comments are politicized, an attempt to avoid the real issue and a dishonest retreat in the face of a serious moral dilemma, as he fails to recognize the facts presented.
One of the times world officials overlooked abuses of human rights, or dismissing them as below the “critical level,” the world woke up to the news of hundreds of thousand of Rwandan lives being lost in a matter of weeks.
It is not the position of the regents to rule what constitutes violations of human rights and war crimes. It is, however, their responsibility to recognize when their policies are being violated, and accept reports by U.N. Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other such independent organizations as a basis for determining the occurrence of such violations and use them to follow guidelines and policies without regard to any political considerations.
The Board of Regents president’s politicized comments ignored reports by, for example, the U.N. special human-rights commissioner in January that Israel’s systemic home demolitions classify as war crimes. Demolitions are often carried out using Caterpillar bulldozers, a company in which UW holds stocks.
Though Israel is considering discontinuing its punitive home-demolitions campaign, it still pushes ahead with other types of demolitions. An example would be the recently announced plan to destroy nearly 3,200 homes in Rafah to expand a military zone, as well as demolishing the homes of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who live in poverty, with little to no access to social services or economic opportunity.
UW’s investment in companies with ties to Israel range from those who provide arms that are used directly to attack Palestinians, carry out extra-judicial assassinations, collective punishment, land appropriation, infrastructure destruction — and the list goes on, as documented by many Palestinian, Israeli and international human-rights organizations.
Regents must divest from Israel because it is their duty, according to their policies, irrespective of their political considerations and expediency or diplomatic maneuvers by those attempting to avoid change to the bloody status quo.
Fayyad Sbaihat (frsbaihat at wisc.edu) is a senior majoring in chemical engineering.