Boston takes on EU over Burma trade

City hall against the world: Local governments confront nation- states, corporations and trade blocs

Massachusetts in the United States has pitted itself against both Japan and the European Union in a highly unusual international trade dispute. It has exercised what amounts to its own foreign policy by boycotting firms doing business with Burma, in protest at that regime's human rights abuses.

The row has reached a new pitch after the delivery of a letter this week to the EU by members of the Massachusetts delegation to the United States Congress. The letter, similar to one sent last week to Japan, chastises the EU for lodging a complaint about the boycott with the Clinton administration.

The boycott was signed into law last August by the governor of Massachusetts, William Weld. Conceived as a sanctions measure against the military junta in Burma, it forbids the state from doing business with companies with interests in that country, or choosing them for pension-fund investments.

Behind the dispute is concern about the implications of individual states and cities passing laws with international trading consequences over which Washington has no influence. Nor is the alarm confined to foreign companies and governments. Also raising the red flag recently was a spokesman for General Electric. "I have a basic problem with 50 different states doing things as if they were the State Department," he said.

While the state is alone in having such a law, 10 US cities, including San Francisco, have passed selective procurement laws designed to punish companies with operations in Burma. Among companies that have been moved to withdraw from Burma as a result are Apple Computer, which feared losing a contract with the Massachusetts school system.

The EU and Japan have notified the State Department that they consider the Massachusetts provisions illegal. They say it could be the subject of official complaints to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In the EU, Ericsson of Sweden was recently persuaded to withdraw from the bidding for an emergency radio system contract in San Francisco because of its Burma links.

The European Union Ambassador to the US, Hugo Paemen, said the measure is "a breach of US international obligations and as such could have damaging effect on bilateral EU-US relations".

Among those angered by the reaction is the Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. "I particularly resent both the EU and Japan trying to interfere with Massachusetts, particularly since we pay for their defence," he remarked.

London (Reuters) - Political repression and human rights violations in Burma last year reached their highest levels since the violent state suppression of a popular uprising at the end of the Eighties, Amnesty International said. Amnesty urged the international community to redouble pressure on the Burmese authorities to improve their human rights record.

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