How the world's biggest corporations are fuelling genocide in Sudan
LONDON, Nov 19, 2004 -- The dazzlingly efficient herding of Jews, gay people and Gypsies into concentration camps by the Nazis was only made possible by the technological expertise of IBM. The corporation provided the Nazis with punch-card technology - revolutionary in the 1930s - that made it possible to classify the entire German population according to "race" and send them to their deaths. The IBM subsidiary Hollerith had two people stationed in every camp. The numbers tattooed on to the arms of prisoners were five-digit codes for IBM machines. As Edwin Black - the award-winning historian who spent five years exposing this fetid story - explains: "Without IBM's machinery, continuing upkeep and service, as well as the supply of punch cards, Hitler's camps could never have managed the numbers they did."
This isn't an arid history lesson. IBM has apologised and moved on, but another group of multinational corporations is making a holocaust possible today in Darfur.
This western region of Sudan has dropped down the news agenda. But remember: one person dies every five minutes, 2 million people have been driven from their homes, and the UN describes the situation as "the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world today". But the Arab majority is continuing to rape and slaughter the black African minority with near-impunity. One journalist offers a typical scene from the province: "I found a man groaning under a tree. He had been shot in the neck and jaw and left for dead in a pile of corpses. Under the next tree I found a four-year-old orphan girl caring for her starving one-year old brother. And under the tree next to that was a woman whose husband had been killed, along with her seven- and four-year old sons, before she was gang-raped and mutilated."
The unelected Arab supremacist government in Khartoum raises virtually nothing in taxation. Sudan has an annual per capita income of just pounds 220. So how have they managed to afford to fight a war and launch a genocide? In the south, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they waged a vast war against the Christian population, killing 2 million of them and ethnically cleansing a further 4 million. In Darfur today, Khartoum is arming and whipping up the genocidal Janjaweed militias. They have enough cash to buy Mig- 29s, one of the most swish and deadly fighter aircrafts in the world.
How can they afford all this? Because multinational corporations have ignored the pleas of human rights groups and handed money to the Khartoum serial killers in exchange for Sudan's oil. The roll-call of companies who chose to do this is long and distinguished: Siemens AG from Germany, Alcatel SA from France, ABB Ltd from Switzerland, Tatneft from Russia and PetroChina.
Human Rights Watch states unequivocally: "Oil revenues have been used by the [Sudanese] government to obtain weapons and ammunition that have enabled it to intensify the war." The money paid by multinationals is not the cause of these programmes of mass slaughter, but it is an essential ingredient. Just as Hitler could not have operated such efficient gas chambers without IBM's technology, Khartoum could not be waging such effective and large-scale genocides without oil money.
Of course, these corporations do not actively seek genocide, just as IBM did not actively seek the murder of Jews. They simply have a morally neutral stance towards it. They clearly see the murder of human beings as irrelevant; the profit margin is all. This tells us something about the nature of corporations - now the dominant cultural and economic institution of our times.
Private business is an essential component of a free society because it generates wealth and enables individuals to be independent from the state. But its desire for profit must be kept in careful balance with other human necessities; too often, it is not.
Even within broadly democratic countries like the US, we can see how corporations try to buy up the institutions of a free society - politicians and the press - and encourage them to turn a blind eye to (or even deny) life-and-death issues such as man-made climate change.
But democratic citizens can, if they have the will, restrain them. When corporations operate outside democracies, they will acknowledge no moral limits, and nobody can make them. They will pursue profit at any price. Some will even enslave people in sweat-shops and effectively - as in the Holocaust and in Darfur - aid and abet murder.
Only one group has opposed the corporations facilitating the murder in Sudan with any success, at least when it comes to brokering a fragile peace in the south. This is difficult for me to write, because they have not been the forces I like - human rights groups and the internationalist left. No; the only group that has effectively lobbied against the genocidal regime in Khartoum has been the red-state Christian evangelicals in the US. They lobbied hard for an oil embargo against Sudan, so US dollars were not used to slaughter their fellow Christians. Uber-moralistic religion clashed with raw amoral markets, and - incredibly - the Bush administration sided with the evangelicals against the oil companies. As a result, since 2000, no US oil company has been allowed to operate within Sudan, to their fury. Peace has finally prevailed. This shows what can happen when the Sudanese government is subject to serious economic penalties for its crimes.
The US is lobbying hard for the UN to impose similar international oil sanctions to stop the genocide in Darfur. (The evangelicals are much less worried about slaughtered Muslims, but they believe the chaos might spill over into the south). This is being flatly opposed by China - which receives a quarter of its oil supplies from Sudan - and Russia. These two authoritarian governments are vandalising any attempt to deal with this genocide through the United Nations.
It seems nobody is prepared to choke off the corporate fuel for the holocaust in Darfur. The UN is rendered useless by its arcane structures, the African Union is too poor and disorganised to act, and an Anglo-US intervention is extremely unlikely in the wake of Iraq. So what do we do - lie back and watch the first genocide of the 21st century scythe through Darfur unhindered?
There is an alternative. Professor Eric Reeves is an expert on the murder of black Darfurians. He explains: "The only way to stop this genocide now is for a mass campaign to force multinationals to disinvest from Sudan. During the apartheid era in South Africa, the divestment movement was an immensely powerful force in breaking down this system of racial discrimination. We can do the same today."
Through our pensions plans, our universities and our stock portfolios, we in Europe own most of the companies providing the hard cash for this genocide. If our governments fail to act to end genocide, the responsibility falls to us. Go to www.divestsudan.org to find out how, practically, we can act to deprive the Janjaweed militias of money and arms, just as we throttled apartheid.
If you don't bother - if you're just too busy, or you think corporations will behave responsibly without your pressure - please, don't lower your head or indulge in a moment's pained silence on Holocaust Day next year. You will have learnt nothing and remembered nothing.