WASHINGTON – A Senate committee Wednesday examined whether divestment by states and localities in Sudan conflicts with the federal government's ability to conduct foreign policy.
Even though President Bush has said the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan constitutes genocide,representatives of the State and Treasury departments urged the Senate Banking,Housing and Urban Affairs Committee not to approve a bill that would discourage U.S. investment in Sudan. The House passed the bill in July.
Committee members criticized the administration's stand.
“I don't want to be combative,but you have a high burden of proof,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey,D-Pa. “There is frustration and intensity for real,concrete action,and then you say to states and citizens that,essentially they have a tool,but we don't want them to use that option.”
Jendayi E. Frazer,assistant secretary of state for African affairs,said the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Sudan May 29 are working.
“We are at a critical moment and it is important to avoid any action that might set back the progress we have made thus far,” Frazer said.
Progress includes the Comprehensive Peace Agreement,a cease-fire that ended a 21-year civil war between North and South Sudan. The agreement calls for elections in 2009,which Frazer said,”can dramatically change the political landscape in Sudan and Darfur.”
Congress should not enact any legislation that could upset the delicate balance with the Sudan government and the peace agreement,Frazer said.
Sen. Robert Menendez,D-N.J.,highlighted Frazer's use of the word delicate.
“The State Department seems to be overly optimistic about the U.S. sanctions and sensitive to upsetting President [Omar Hassan al-] Bashir,” Menendez said. “We want all leverage possible to send the message that we are serious about the situation.”
Senators and witnesses discussed several policy tools contained in the Darfur Accountability and Divestment Act the House passed.
It would require the Securities and Exchange Commission to list U.S. companies that do business with Sudan,ban federal contracts with those companies and require the Government Accountability Office to investigate corporate investments in Sudan.
The Sudan Divestment Task Force,an anti-genocide group,says 10 countries,20 states,nine cities and 50 universities have pledged to stop doing business with companies that do business with Sudan.
Sen. Jim Bunning,R-Ky.,said a move to pass the bill quickly through the Senate earlier this year was inappropriate because the committee hadn't had a hearing.
“I do not agree that each state or city should have their own foreign policy,” Bunning said. “We must speak with one voice when dealing with other countries.”
Elizabeth Dibble,acting assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Economic,Energy and Business Affairs,said the administration opposes federal legislation that authorizes state and local divestment campaigns.
“Sanctions policy needs to respond quickly to rapidly evolving events,” Dibble said. “Having one unified foreign policy gives us the flexibility to do this.”
William A. Reinsch,president of the National Foreign Trade Council,said,”Foreign policy measures by states and local governments are even less effective and infinitely more problematic.”
One problem is a conflict with a 2000 Supreme Court decision that a supremacy clause in the Constitution protects the president's ability to conduct foreign policy.
If the act is passed by the Senate,Reinsch recommended including a statement that would limit the ability of states to impose foreign policy sanctions in other situations.
Sen. Jack Reed,D-R.I.,encouraged legislation that would require the SEC to make a list of companies involved with the Sudan government.
“We need to inspire the SEC to allow shareholders to participate actively in the proxy process and consider divestment,” Reed said.
The SEC declined to comment on pending legislation.
Most committee members and witnesses said the time is now to pass tougher legislation.
Sen. Sam Brownback,R-Kan.,evoked previous genocides.
“We've said often,‘never again,'” Brownback said. “We pledge not on our watch. We must also say not on our dime.”