by Marc Gunther
November 28 2007: 12:26 PM EST
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Olympic sponsors ignore Darfur protest

Activists led by Mia Farrow are trying to link the 2008 Beijing Olympics to 'genocide' in Sudan. So far, corporate sponsors aren't pulling out.

By Marc Gunther, senior writer

(Fortune) -- Good citizens speak out when they see injustice. Can good corporate citizens be expected to do the same?

That's the uncomfortable question being raised by a human rights group called Dream for Darfur, which is asking sponsors of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to voice their opposition to China's support for the government of Sudan. The Sudanese government has been accused of waging a genocide against its own citizens in Darfur.

This week Dream for Darfur issued a length report as part of its challenge to 19 Olympic sponsors, including such well-known global brands as Coca-Cola, General Electric, Kodak, Microsoft and Visa, to press China, Sudan's most important global ally, to use its influence to end the Darfur crisis. China buys oil from the Sudanese government, and sells weapons to the Khartoum regime. Since 2003, about 200,000 people have died and an estimated 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes in Darfur.

In a the report, Dream for Darfur asks: "Why are the major corporations sponsoring the Olympics - some of the most recognizable brands in the world - refusing to speak out against the world's most wrenching humanitarian crisis?" "Sponsors are supporting China's efforts to position itself in glowing terms on the world stage," said Jill Savitt, director of Dream for Darfur. "But they are silent about China's role in the Darfur genocide, and in their silence, they are complicit."

(If you want to better understand what's going on in Darfur, rent the DVD of an excellent 2007 documentary called "The Devil Came on Horseback." It tells the story of a former U.S. Marine captain name Brian Steidle who worked as a African Union monitor in Darfur, an experience that turned him into a passionate activist against the genocide.)

As it happens, some of the companies that are being criticized by Dream for Darfur have stepped in to help victims of the genocide. The GE Foundation says it made $2 million in humanitarian aid grants to CARE, UNICEF and International Medical Corps to did with food, shelter and medical treatment for refugees in the region. Coca-Cola (Charts, Fortune 500) has given $750,000 to the Red Cross and Red Crescent to provide humanitarian relief. Johnson & Johnson also reported giving $750,000 worth of humanitarian aid.

But despite the activists' high-level publicity and lobbying campaign, the companies aren't budging. They argue that the Olympics transcend politics: that it's not their role to lobby the Chinese government, and that resolving the crisis in Darfur is a job best left to the United Nations. "As an Olympic sponsor, we are guests at the 2008 Beijing Games," said Antonio M. Perez, the chairman and CEO of Kodak, in a letter to the group. "It is not our place to make political demands of the hosts of what is, at its root, an athletic event."

Bob Corcoran, vice president for corporate citizenship at GE (Charts, Fortune 500), wrote, "Our experience tells us that public corporations must tread very carefully when affairs of state are involved." Perhaps hinting that GE had raised the issue in a private forum, he also wrote, "GE also appreciates the value of quiet diplomacy, away from the spotlight, as a means of constructive conflict resolution."

Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500), which has come under fire for permitting the Chinese to censor blogs on its Internet platform, had little to say about its role as the official software and support supplier for the Olympics. It was one of 13 companies that Dream for Darfur gave a grade of F for its failure to address the Darfur issue. GE, McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Johnson and Johnson scored C's and D's in the report.

The full report and an accompanying press release can be found at the Dream for Darfur website. The Darfur activists communicated with the sponsors for six months before issuing the report. Dream for Darfur is chaired by the actress Mia Farrow, who invited corporate executives to accompany her on a trip to refugee camps in Chad. All declined. Savitt, the director, is on leave from another activist group, called Human Rights First, to work on the campaign to link Darfur to the Olympics. "It is unacceptable for China to sponsor the Olympics at home and a genocide in Sudan," Savitt said. Critics say China has also provided diplomatic support for Sudan at the UN, stymieing efforts to get peacekeeping forces into the region.

For its part, the Chinese government says it isn't to blame for the problems in Darfur. China recently sent a small peace-keeping unit to Darfur, and it has promised about $5 million in aid to refugees. But the Chinese government has staked a tremendous amount on hosting the Olympics this year, and so far seems unwilling to bend to activists' wishes. So far, the corporate sponsors are in a similar camp.  To top of page

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