THE BLOG
02/25/2008 05:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Business, China and Darfur

Fidelity mutual fund investors, McDonald's customers, employees of Kodak and Johnson & Johnson - all will soon have the opportunity to urge those companies to speak out against the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

The companies had better figure out what to say.

Fidelity has been the longtime target of a divestment campaign by activists who say the company holds shares in foreign firms like PetroChina that do business in, and help finance the government of Sudan. Next month, Fidelity's mutual fund shareholders will have a chance to vote on a resolution asking Fidelity to make their funds "genocide-free."

McDonald's, Kodak and J&J are among the sponsors of this summer's Beijing Olympics. China is the biggest customer for Sudan's oil, and activists want to do what they can to stop the Olympics from putting a pretty face on China's repressive regime.

If trying to link U.S. companies to an African genocide feels like a stretch--and there's no question that it does--you can't blame the legions of concerned citizens who have been working on many fronts, political and diplomatic, for doing what they can to enlist the support of Corporate America. After all, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in Darfur, more than 2.5 million have been driven from their homes and the Bush administration has called the crisis the first genocide of the 21st century. It's been going on for five years, and although U.S. law prohibits American companies from doing business in Sudan, companies like Fidelity and the Olympic sponsors have the ability, by raising their voices, to make a difference. Business as usual just won't do.

Two weeks ago, Darfur activists won a big victory when film director Steven Spielberg withdrew as artistic director of the opening ceremonies in Beijing. That, by itself, puts a taint, if not a stain, on the games.

Fidelity has done a shameful job of responding - actually, of not responding - to a campaign by an activist group called Investors Against Genocide. Eric Cohen, a leader of the group, has tried for many months to get a meeting with top officials of the company, with no success. So Investors Against Genocide petitioned the SEC to allow Fidelity's shareholders to vote on the issue.

Fidelity's lawyers tried and failed to block the votes, arguing that this was the "ordinary business" of the funds and therefore not subject to shareholder resolutions.

Now Fidelity has been forced to put the "genocide-free" shareholder proposal on the proxy ballot for the March shareholder meetings of many of its biggest funds, including Capital and Income fund, Contrafund, Growth and Income fund, Low-Priced Stock fund, Puritan fund, Real Estate Investment Portfolio, Select Health Care Portfolio, and Utilities fund. You can read more about this at the Investors Against Genocide website.

As for the Olympic sponsors, an organization called Dream for Darfur, which is led by the actress Mia Farrow, says it will step up criticism of sponsors unless they speak out. U.S. companies who are big Olympic sponsors include Coca-Cola, GE, John Hancock, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, McDonald's and Visa. Dream for Darfur wants companies to send executives to meet with Farrow, to contact the U.N. about the state of peacekeeping in Darfur, and call for Sudanese war criminals to be banned from attending the Olympics, according to this article from BusinessWeek.

This puts the sponsors in an awkward spot, since sponsors who signed up for the Beijing games had hoped to cozy up to the Chinese and get access to their huge and fast-growing market. Oops.

McDonald's is an easy target for the activists because of it has restaurants everywhere. The Dream for Darfur people are talking about printing up stickers saying, "McDonald's: Proud Sponsors of the Genocide Olympics."

By contrast, GE doesn't have any stores, and it has handled the controversy well. The company provided $2 million in aid to refugees in Darfur and said it would raise the issue with the International Olympic Committee.

Maybe all the Olympic sponsors should donate a small percentage of their sales in China to help Darfur refugees. That would make a point.

The China-Olympic controversies go beyond Darfur, of course. Human Rights Watch has an information-packed website devoted to China's Olympic-sized human rights challenges, including an agenda for reform. Reporters Without Borders calls China "the world's biggest prison for journalists and cyber-dissidents." Check out what they've done with the image of the Olympic rings on their website.

And if you are thinking right now that these issues have no place in the Olympics, consider this: The IOC and the Chinese said years ago that awarding the Olympics to Beijing would help promote democracy and human rights in China.

The sportswriter Sally Jenkins wrote a great column about this in The Washington Post. She writes:

In his final presentation before the IOC vote, Beijing Mayor and Bidding Committee president Liu Qi proclaimed, "I want to say that the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games will have the following special features: They will help promote our economic and social progress and will also benefit the further development of our human rights cause."

Is it too much to ask the Chinese to keep their word?