Burma Boycotts Collide with Trade Agreements

By Woellert, Lorraine | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 20, 1997 | Go to article overview

Burma Boycotts Collide with Trade Agreements


Woellert, Lorraine, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


****FOREIGN CHALLENGES TO STATE AND LOCAL SANCTIONS THREATEN FREE SPEECH.****

Massachusetts lawmakers thought they were making a simple statement of conscience. Little did they know they'd fired a shot that would be heard 'round the world.

A year-old Massachusetts boycott targeting human rights abuses in Burma is reverberating in towns and states across the country, from Takoma Park to Oakland, Calif., which have passed anti-Burma laws of their own.

But the shot also alerted the European Union and Japan, two of America's biggest trading partners, provoking a groundbreaking trade dispute that could tear at the ideals of states' rights and free speech.

"You'll pry this law out of my cold, dead fingers," said Simon Billenness of Franklin Research Institute, an investment firm that led the call for Massachusetts' anti-Burma law. "Boycotts . . . are intrinsically American. If it wasn't for a boycott of tea from Britain, you wouldn't have an American Constitution in the first place."

Japan and the EU say the Massachusetts law, which seeks to pressure Burma's militaristic State Law and Order Restoration Council by boycotting companies that do business there, violates a 1993 World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement to keep government purchasing open to all bidders on both sides of the ocean.

Japan and Europe have given the United States four weeks to get the Massachusetts law off the books. Failing that, they've threatened to take their complaint to the WTO, which ultimately could impose economic sanctions against the United States.

The standoff has pitted human rights activists against the WTO, while corporate lobbyists shift into high gear to stop local Burma boycotts from proliferating. Meanwhile, puzzled and alarmed trade experts are wondering how all this could have come about.

"It's forcing people to think through the long-term implications of these [trade] agreements in a way they've not done before," said Robert Stumberg, a professor at the Harrison Institute for Public Law at Georgetown University.

"We have a minefield full of state and local laws that pretty clearly violate one or more trade agreements," Mr. Stumberg said. "If we just lurch ahead, we're on a collision course."

Last year, as Burma's repressive military regime was gaining worldwide attention, Massachusetts Rep. Byron Rushing, a Democrat from Boston, dusted off an old state boycott against South Africa. The words "South Africa" were replaced with "Burma," and the anti-Burma bill was born.

Selective purchasing policies have been around for decades. More than 40 states have a "buy American" preference. Others favor local companies or set-aside contracts for minority or female-owned businesses.

In the past two years, more than a dozen cities and states - San Francisco and New York City among them - have passed or are considering anti-Burma bills, retracing their own footsteps from the 1980s, when they put South Africa boycotts on the books.

Four major U.S. corporations, including Eastman Kodak and Motorola, already have pulled out of Burma since Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a Republican, signed his state's boycott bill into law last June.

Such feel-good laws generally are more political expression than economic blackmail and often go unnoticed. But in the past, states didn't have the WTO to contend with.

"If WTO agreements had been successfully used against South African selective-purchasing laws, then Nelson Mandela might still be in prison today," Mr. Billenness said.

In this new era of free markets and global commerce, purchasing laws - even buy-American laws - could crumble under the government-procurement pact the United States signed in 1993 under the WTO, which has the power to impose economic sanctions against the United States. …

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