Berkeley’s three-decade history of standing up to countries whose policies are said to violate human rights took an abrupt turn Monday when the Supreme Court upheld a challenge to a Massachusetts law boycotting Burma.
Based on that decision, City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque advised the city Tuesday to stop enforcing its purchasing restrictions on companies that do business with Burma.
The high court’s 9-0 judgment overturned a 1996 Massachusetts law that barred the state from buying goods or services from companies doing business with Burma. By conducting a boycott, the state is unconstitutionally infringing on the federal government’s right to make foreign policy, the court said.
It is at the discretion of the president to control economic sanctions against Burma, the judges wrote: “Although Congress put initial sanctions in place, it authorized the president to terminate the measures upon certifying that Burma has made progress in human rights and democracy, to impose new sanctions upon findings of repression, and, more importantly, to suspend sanctions in the interest of national security.”
Berkeley began boycotting Burma in 1995, the first among numerous cities to do so. The boycott was in response to a call by Burma’s National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which alleged human rights abuses by the country’s rulers.
Berkeley’s first foray into the use of selective purchasing was in 1979, when it followed the lead of Madison, Wis., and began boycotting companies that did business with South Africa.
Cities and other jurisdictions followed worldwide. Former Rep. Ron Dellums introduced the boycott on the national level. In a speech at the Oakland Coliseum, not long after his release from prison, former South African President Nelson Mandela thanked the people of the Bay Area for contributing to the fall of apartheid in his country, through their support of local boycotts.
Albuquerque said that the court’s decision was tailored narrowly to the question of Burma, so it would not impact other selective purchasing decisions made by the city. The city has selective purchasing policies with regard to refusing to buy old growth redwood products and purchasing recycled paper. In the past, it has boycotted companies that did business with Nigeria and Indonesia.
The court’s decision, however, raises the question of whether the successful challenge to the Massachusetts law could open floodgates for further challenges to local boycotts.
Shannon Wolfe, who has studied the ruling for the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange, said she believes it is possible that local governments can re-write their ordinances so that they would pass muster under the Supreme Court ruling.
“The ruling may mean that we have to find a new, improved method of expressing our opinion on human rights issues,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.