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Massachusetts Takes on Burma
- Subject: Massachusetts Takes on Burma
- From: moe@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Mon, 01 Feb 1999 21:37:00
Massachusetts Takes on Burma
By Fred Hiatt Washington Post
Sunday, January 31, 1999; Page B07
In the 1980s, local governments and state pension funds helped lead the
fight against South African apartheid. Now two dozen governments, from the
city of Los Angeles to the state of Massachusetts, are waging similar
campaigns against Burma's repressive regime.
But this time around the selective-purchasing laws have come under attack
from the European Union, Japan, big American businesses and possibly -- this
is still under debate -- the Clinton administration. Massachusetts, targeted
as a test case, has become a battleground in one of the great conflicts of
the age: local sovereignty vs. an international rule of law. To get a sense
of how complex this clash can be, you only have to realize that
Massachusetts has run afoul of one set of international rules (governing
trade) by seeking to impose on Burma another (on human rights).
The quandary plays out inside the administration. Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright, an ardent critic of Burma's dictators, last year said
that she and President Clinton recognized state and local officials'
authority "to determine their own investment and procurement policies, and
the right -- indeed their responsibility -- to take moral considerations
into account as they do so."
Yet the administration may now ask a federal appeals court to strike down
the Massachusetts law; an internal debate is unresolved.
There is no debate about the evils of Burma's regime. Forced labor, torture,
corruption, drug peddling -- against stiff worldwide competition, Burma's
dictators are about the worst in every category. Moreover, Burma is blessed
with a legitimate, nonviolent, democratic opposition that in 1990 won four
out of five parliamentary seats. The junta has yet to allow that parliament
to meet; instead, it has imprisoned hundreds of should-be congressmen and
In 1996 Massachusetts enacted a law barring state agencies from doing
business with companies that do business in Burma. State officials argued
that Massachusetts taxpayers had the right to work against an odious regime
if they so chose.
The European Union felt differently. It filed suit in the World Trade
Organization, arguing that the Massachusetts law violated U.S. treaty
promises to base government procurement solely on performance.
The National Foreign Trade Council, an alliance of major U.S. exporters,
felt differently, too. As part of its wider campaign against unilateral
economic sanctions in U.S. foreign policy, it persuaded a federal judge to
invalidate the Massachusetts law last November on the grounds that it
impinges on foreign-policy making, a federal prerogative. The state is
appealing; the administration may weigh in on the side of the multinational
The National Foreign Trade Council argues in part that the Massachusetts
law, like most economic sanctions, isn't effective. Aung San Suu Kyi, the
Nelson Mandela of Burma, disagrees. In a 1997 interview, she strongly
welcomed the Massachusetts law.
"We would like to see more of this," she said. "It's consumer power. . . . I
think in some ways it's better to have the people of the world on your side
than the governments."
U.S. officials also complain that state and local sanctions complicate their
dealings with allies, but that cuts both ways. New York's threat of
sanctions against Swiss banks, while opposed by Undersecretary of State
Stuart Eizenstat, undoubtedly helped him negotiate a better deal for
But there's a stronger argument against the Massachusetts law. The United
States has campaigned hard for fair rules for international trade, to ensure
that American companies aren't discriminated against and that ability -- not
cronyism, corruption or protectionism -- determines who wins contracts. If
Americans start demanding exceptions, for however noble a purpose, then
every other country will, too.
To this, the law's supporters argue that they are not acting on whim. Burma
has been judged, by the United Nations first and foremost, to be in
violation of internationally accepted norms of behavior.
Perhaps more to the point, the push for international rules of trade has to
leave some room for local initiative, local choice, local democracy. This
will always call for balance and political judgment -- the good sense not to
push uniformity too far -- will have to come into play.
In that vein, Eizenstat, though a skeptic on the value of unilateral
sanctions, nonetheless says he believes that Europe's decision to challenge
the Massachusetts law was "very, very ill-considered and unhelpful."
The same might be said if the administration sides against Massachusetts.
This year Clinton plans an uphill battle for fast-track trade authority. He
will be fighting not only against the skepticism that defeated his trade
bill in the last Congress but against a rising mood of protectionism. The
battle surely won't be any easier if the administration sides against
states' rights to, as Albright said, "take moral considerations into account."
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.