Boycotts aimed abroad restricted

Ruling rebuffs efforts by state, local officials to influence countries

Supreme Court

June 20, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A unanimous Supreme Court sharply restricted the authority of state and local governments yesterday to use their purchasing power to try to influence the human rights policies of foreign nations.

The court struck down a 1996 Massachusetts law aimed at promoting democracy in Burma, saying it intruded heavily on the power of the president to conduct foreign policy.

The state law, affecting about $2 billion a year of purchases by state agencies, barred those agencies from buying goods or services from companies - American or overseas - that do business with or in Burma.

The ruling rebuffed the efforts of Maryland, 13 other states, a number of city and county governments and human rights groups to gain economic leverage to reduce human rights abuses around the world.

The decision cast doubt on the constitutionality of "Burma laws" adopted by 23 city governments, including those in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Those laws targeted the military regime in Burma, whose leaders have renamed the country Myanmar.

The key to yesterday's ruling was that Congress and President Clinton have joined to impose economic and diplomatic restraints on the Burmese government, and Massachusetts' law was found likely to disrupt those measures. Clinton and the lawmakers acted within months after Massachusetts passed its law.

The Supreme Court's decision left open the constitutionality of states' and cities' use of economic power to influence a foreign regime, in the absence of congressional and presidential actions that displace such efforts.

The court had never before ruled on such official boycott tactics. Economic boycotts of the South African government for its racist apartheid policies had become common in the 1980s, but their legality was never tested in the Supreme Court.

The South African boycotts involved refusals by governments or government agencies to deal with that government or to invest in companies that dealt with it. Similar boycotts were imposed in efforts to influence the policies of Cuba, Nigeria and Switzerland.

Massachusetts' Burma law, prompted by complaints from U.S. observers and officials about grave human rights abuses in Burma, was challenged by the National Foreign Trade Council, a group of companies that deal in international trade.

That group praised yesterday's decision, saying it "reaffirms the federal government's predominant role in foreign policy and should help put an end to state and local efforts to make foreign policy."

But human rights groups condemned the decision and promised renewed efforts to find ways to impose economic pressure on Burma.

A group known as the Free Burma Coalition said it would begin a company "to enact a new generation of Burma laws," to control state and local purchases from companies that deal with Burma.

Justice David H. Souter, who wrote the court's main opinion, said the state law imposed a system of economic pressure on Burma that was different from the one Congress and the president had chosen.

"The state statute penalizes some private action that the federal act as administered by the president may allow, and pulls levers of influence that the federal act does not reach," Souter said.

Moreover, he added, the state law "undermines the president's capacity for effective diplomacy." It compromises "the very capacity of the president to speak for the nation with one voice in dealing with other governments."

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