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A new divestment campaign with old roots

March 8, 2012

“Don’t Bank on the Bomb,” the new report released this week by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), exposes the complex web of relationships among banks, investment funds, other private financial institutions, and the corporations that manufacture and maintain a large share of the world’s nuclear weapons. The report is a remarkable piece of research on its own terms, but its real value lies in the foundation it provides for local and national divestment campaigns in some 30 countries.

Tim Wright, the director of ICAN-Australia and the lead author of the report, said on this blog today, “Any person with a bank account or pension fund has the power to choose not to invest in nuclear arms makers.”

There has never been a full-fledged divestment campaign with nuclear weapons as the focal point.  From 1984 to 1993, however, grassroots campaigners who had organized a successful boycott of Nestle’s infant formula marketing practices in the developing world turned their attention to General Electric and its involvement in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.  One of their cleverest and most effective tactics was turning GE’s marketing slogan, “We bring good things to life,” on its head. Including more Hiroshimas? Oh, really?

The GE boycott focused on the company’s medical division, in particular its very sophisticated, very expensive diagnostic imaging equipment, used in hospitals all over the world. IPPNW made at least one major contribution to the boycott, when German physician Ulrich Gottstein and some of his colleagues successfully persuaded some German hospitals to cancel multi-million dollar contracts for GE equipment.

After seven years of unrelenting pressure, GE sold its aerospace division in 1993 and got out of the nuclear weapons business.

The great thing about the GE boycott, which I expect will be the same for “Don’t Bank on the Bomb,” is that even small individual actions mattered—and could be a lot of fun. I remember dropping into my local music store in Takoma Park, Maryland and noticing that some GE appliances were being offered as prizes in a store contest. I talked to the store’s owner, who knew me as a regular customer, explained that GE was making nukes in addition to radios, TVs, and light bulbs, and asked if he might consider substituting some less tainted prizes. I returned a few days later and the GE products were gone.

I notice that ING is one of the banks on the list, and that they actually have a policy against financing nuclear weapons. I’ll have to send them a letter from a concerned customer and ask them what went wrong.

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