Whitefish Teen Pushes Legislation to Aid Darfur Crisis

By Beacon Staff

In the state Legislature, the customary role of the powerful House Appropriations Committee is to oversee and make spending decisions on Montana’s budget. But when Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish, stands before the Appropriations Committee March 11, it will be with a very different request: one that asks lawmakers to look more closely – not at where public dollars are being spent – but where state money originated.

House Bill 619, sponsored by Jopek, would require the state Board of Investments to divest investments in certain companies that conduct business with the African country of Sudan, whose president was ordered arrested last week by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity due to his role in the displacement of millions of people, and murders of hundreds of thousands, in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.

While the bill is unusual by the standards of the Montana Legislature in its intent to improve conditions in a nation on the other side of the world, what’s even more unusual is that this legislation wasn’t initiated by elected officials, but by a group of students at Whitefish High School.

Josh Schott, a 17-year-old junior, is chairman of the Whitefish High Young Democrats and the Whitefish Students Anti-Genocide Coalition, two groups he founded. Jopek approached the Young Democrats last fall with the offer that if they came up with a bill, he would carry it during the current session.

At first, the group considered a bill requiring vehicle emissions testing in Montana, Schott said, but eventually dropped the idea due to its unpopularity and difficulty to enforce. Then, in November, during a screening by the Anti-Genocide Coalition of the documentary film, “Darfur Now,” Schott said he was inspired by a storyline about a California college student who managed to pass a bill through the state Legislature there requiring divestment from companies doing business in Sudan. That California student’s effort started the Sudan Divestment movement, which has so far spurred similar legislation in 27 states.

Jopek did not expect the teens to approach him with this kind of bill proposal.

“I was a little bit surprised,” Jopek said. “It is a bill that is outside the scope of what I thought high school kids were thinking about.”

But for Schott the legislation, if passed, could achieve more than tweaking an aspect of the state’s environmental regulations; it would allow Montana to join a movement aimed at applying widespread, grassroots pressure to end the Darfur conflict.

“We need to stop this endless cycle of hate and violence,” Schott said. “As part of the global community, we need to step in for people who have no voice and are calling for help.”

The Sudan Divestment Task Force’s goal, according to its Web site, is to coordinate a movement that curtails the Darfur violence by reducing foreign direct investment to Sudan, where the government relies heavily on such investment to exploit its oil resources and spends heavily on its military with the proceeds. The task force, comprised of pro bono attorneys and financial analysts, publishes several reports a year identifying and profiling companies doing business with the Sudanese government.

The result is that these companies have steadily decreasing incentives to get involved in Sudan, and as the movement grows, funds that invest in such companies begin to under-perform, which dissuades new investors, regardless of concern about the violence in Darfur.

“The main goal is to pressure these companies to utilize their power and influence in Sudan to change the behavior,” Schott said.

Companies identified by the Sudan Divestment Task Force (SDTF) as “highest offenders” underperformed their peer group by almost 50 percent over one year, 22.23 percent over three years and 7.22 percent over five years, according to the task force, and the group claims 10 major corporations have ceased operations in Sudan or dramatically altered how they operate there.

The task force also offers model legislation, which has been adopted in 19 states, and upon which Jopek’s bill is based. While the bill doesn’t cost anything, it would require staff at the Board of Investments to investigate foreign companies. Should the state require more sources on which companies are working with the Sudanese government than what SDTF offers, it could be difficult to gain this information.

But Schott is hopeful lawmakers in Helena will consider the bill as important as he does – and as of last week, was preparing to head to the Capitol to make his case.

“I’m not nervous,” he said. “I’m keeping my cool but this is my first time, particularly in direct legislation such as this.”

Schott urges anyone who wishes to have their opinion of the bill considered by the House Appropriations Committee to e-mail committee staffer Jon Moe at jmoe@mt.gov. If the bill passes, it will be one big accomplishment for the Whitefish High Young Democrats before Schott heads to Uganda to do aid work this summer.

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