From ............. U.S.NEWS & WORLD REPORT
OCTOBER i4, 1996
THE VERY LONG ARM OF THE LAW
IS THE WORLD READY FOR 7,284 SECRETARIES OF STATE ?
The city council of Madison, Wis., makes the whole world its business.
A pioneer in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, the city council has most recently taken on human rights abuses in Myanmar (Burma). In the past, the council has taken positions on issues in places like El Salvador and Haiti; it even came close to a resolution urging local police not to help track down deserters from the armed forces during the gulf war.
"This city isn't a city unto itself," declares former City Alderperson Bert Zipperer, who says the resolutions represent the "collective conscience" of the town. "We deserve a say in how we will deal with other parts of the world."
What began as an exercise in selfrighteousness in small, liberal college towns like Madison has blossomed into a major cottage industry for activists of all stripes. From Oakland, Calif., to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, local and state governments are increasingly intruding into an area once reserved for the State Department, targeting everything from labor practices in Northern Ireland to military repression in Myanmar. Last week California got into the act with a law banning state contracts with companies that have purchased or used goods made with slave labor. Inspired by Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu, the law is aimed primarily at products made in Chinese prisons.
Trying to monitor the foreign policy of 50 states and 7,284 municipalities is, to put it simply, a nightmare for companies and national governments alike. "There's no way we can keep track of all the individual actions," admits one State Department official. To be sure, many of the actions are nonbinding resolutions with no effect beyond assuaging the earnest consciences of activists who have taken to heart the maxim of thinking globally and acting locally. [At least one chamber of 42 state legislatures has declared support for U.N. representation for Taiwan, for example.] Other measures have arguably created more consternation at home than behavior modification abroad: San Francisco is currently attempting to upgrade its 911 system, and the only two bidders with the technological wherewithal to handle the $40 million project, Motorola and Ericsson, both run afoul of the city's Myanmar-or-us law bannmg contracts with companies that deal with that country's military regime.
Yet such "selective purchasing" laws have had a bite. They create a serious "hassle factor" for companies, says Suzanne Harvey, director of Prudential Securities' Social Investment Research Service. "If you're a large state, you can have a profound effect." Last week, Apple announced it would stop selling computers in Myanmar as a result of Massachusetts's selective purchase law; Amoco and Eddie Bauer have also pulled out under pressure. Besides Massachusetts seven cities including San Francisco have passed similar laws. All are are modeled on bills adopted by some 130 cities and 28 states in the mid-1980s that targeted South Africa's apartheid government.
IRISH AYES. New York City, with its sizable Irish-American population, is one of 17 states and more than 40 municipalities to target religious discrimination in Northern Ireland. Xerox recently became the 38th company to sign a fair-employment pledge in Northern Ireland in order to win a contract with the city.
But the mouse-that-roared quality of these actions always means that, with enough at stake, they can be ignored. Oakland recently banned city contracts with companies that do business in Nigeria. Oil companies shrugged their shoulders.
"We should not be involved in the politics of the country," says Shell spokesman Don Cannon.
He presumably wishes local governments took the same view.
BY KEVIN WHITELAW
Local "selective purchasing" laws take aim at rights violations in several countries:
-MYANMAR. Suspension of elections and the massacre of political opponents by the military regime
- NORTHERN IRELAND. Religious discrimination in hiring
[ never a hint of religious discrimination in S. Ireland .... JP ]
- CHINA. Use of prison slave labor to manufacture products for export
- NIGERIA. Environmental damage and human rights abuses
"MYANMAR CRACKDOWN. Your'e gonna have to answer to Oakland for this one" - [picture caption]
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