State bar to foreign trade to be tested

High court to weigh whether Mass. can ban trade with Myanmar

States rights

November 30, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, stepping into a major dispute over global commerce, agreed yesterday to rule on the constitutionality of economic boycotts staged by U.S. states and cities against foreign nations.

At issue in a Massachusetts case is the spreading campaign by states and localities to refuse to buy goods or services from any companies that do business with a foreign government as a way of influencing that government's policies.

Maryland, 13 other states and a number of cities and counties joined Massachusetts in urging the court to sort out the constitutional roles of national and state governments in the field of international commerce.

The case tests a 1996 law, the "Burma law," passed in Massachusetts as a form of protest against human rights abuses by the military regime in that southeast Asian nation, now named Myanmar.

When the justices decide the case, sometime before summer, the ruling will set a major precedent on the power of states to send messages of disapproval of foreign nations' policies.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston struck down the Burma law in June, finding that it interfered with the federal government's role in managing U.S. foreign affairs and discriminated against foreign commerce. The law is similar to boycotts aimed at Cuba, Nigeria, Northern Ireland and Switzerland that have been adopted elsewhere in the United States.

Massachusetts argued in its appeal that economic boycotts have long been a weapon used by American states -- and by the American Colonies generations ago -- to show moral outrage.

For instance, "Buy American" laws were popular throughout the nation in the 1980s in an effort to support U.S. companies and workers. Similar to that were bans on investment in South Africa when that nation followed its rigid policy of racial separation.

The Supreme Court, however, has never ruled on the constitutionality of such economic measures.

Under the state's Burma law, a list of companies that operate within Myanmar or do business with it has been drawn up. With few exceptions, the law forbids Massachusetts and its agencies from buying goods or services from any companies on that list.

A March report from the United Nations Human Rights Commission cited evidence in Myanmar of summary executions, arbitrary detentions and forced labor.

"The government of Myanmar continues to intimidate its citizens and prevents them from exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of association and expression by prosecuting persons for criminal and treason-related offenses," said the U.N. report.

The law has had a sharp impact on the companies on the list, because they are denied a share of the $2 billion in overall purchases Massachusetts makes each year.

The appellate court, in nullifying the law, said it would have a "corrosive" effect on U.S. diplomacy and on the international community's ability to carry out multilateral efforts to change Myanmar's human rights policies.

There is a federal Burma law, passed three months after the Massachusetts statute was enacted. It provides for U.S. economic sanctions against Myanmar until the president determines that the Asian nation has made progress in improving human rights and bringing about democratic elections.

President Clinton imposed trade sanctions on Myanmar in May 1997, condemning "large-scale oppression of the democratic opposition" in that country.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.