I was over at the alma mater this evening to take in the Carleton University Students’ Association debate on divestment and socially responsible investment. The National Post’s Jonathan Kay tends to get the vapours when this sort of thing comes up: here he helpfully reproduces the motion that was supposed to be discussed.
Read the Whereases for yourself. The legal parts of the motion are the Be It Resolveds:
Be it resolved that CUSA endorse the following three campaign recommendations put forward by the Students’ Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) Divestment Campaign, intended to encourage socially responsible investment of the Carleton University Pension Fund:
• That the Carleton University Board of Governors, via the Pension Fund Committee, immediately divest of the Pension Fund’s stock in BAE Systems, Motorola, Northrop Grumman, and Tesco;
• That Carleton University refrain from investing in other companies involved in violations of international law;
• That Carleton University work with the entire university community to develop, adopt, and implement a broader policy of Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) for its Pension Fund and other investments, through a transparent and effective process.
Three of the four companies are heavily invested in weapons of war used in the Middle East against Palestinians; the fourth, Tesco, sells products manufactured by West Bank settlements. In case anyone needs reminding, those settlements are illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
But none of this matters. CUSA, you see, decided to write a watered-down motion of its own, and contrived to have it debated first. It also excluded most of the people who had come to witness the debate—including me.
Despite the fact that CUSA had been offered a room that would seat 200, they chose instead to keep the much smaller room originally booked, and permitted only forty students to attend—20 from one “side” and 20 from the other.
What’s the opposite of supporting ethical investment? Opposing ethical investment? But the framing of the whole discussion was sufficiently flawed to permit such an absurd binary. It was pro-Israel hawks, one sporting an IDF T-shirt (he didn’t get in either), versus pro-Palestinian folks—not a group of SRI supporters facing off against (say) commerce students worried about ROI.
Luckily there were Blackberries in abundance, inside and out, so we were able to follow along a little. The debate, as near as I could tell, was less about the motion than about defence of vs. opposition to Israeli state policies.
The CUSA motion consisted of a bland statement of support for SRI, excluding any mention of the four companies, and set out a few general grounds for screening out investments. An interminable discussion on whether to add “illegal occupation” took up much of the debate, but, in what must be considered a breakthrough, it was eventually added.
Almost needless to say, the CUSA chair ruled the original motion redundant, and was sustained by the Council. The resolution that passed has moral force only, of course—only the Carleton University Board of Governors can decide to pursue an ethical investment strategy. Their next meeting, which promises to be well-attended, will be held on March 29 in the Senate Boardroom.
My thoughts? Well, SRI is hardly a new concept. It was used in divestment campaigns against South Africa in the apartheid days, and more recently against Sudan once the genocide in Darfur started up. Such strategies have discouraged investment in adult entertainment, alcohol, gambling, nuclear power and tobacco, as well as weapons. Perhaps counter-intuitively, SRI funds have outperformed the market average—which is perhaps why no commerce students seemed to be among the crowd this evening.
The four companies were, of course, targeted because of their activities in the Middle East. But the point worth making here is that their alleged actions would have been just as unethical anywhere else. If people could have stood back from their familiar site of struggle and concentrated on SRI per se, the same result could, arguably, have been achieved.
In the event, I believe that it was. A strong SRI code of principles at Carleton is quite possibly in sight. And certainly the addition of “illegal occupation” as a ground of disinvestment makes the desired point without even having to mention Israel or Palestine.
By a circuitous route, then, progressive Carleton students can rightly claim victory tonight. And with luck and determination, that victory will be sealed later this year.