Judge Rules Apartheid Victims Can Sue Ford, GM and IBM

Monday, April 13, 2009

Manhattan Federal District Judge Shira Scheindlin is allowing some claims against companies that allegedly did business with the racist South African government during the 1970s and 1980s to go forward.  More than a dozen lawsuits were initially filed against U.S., European and Canadian companies for aiding and abetting apartheid.  Scheindlin dismissed several more companies as defendants, but is allowing the plaintiffs to press their claims against IBM, German automaker Daimler AG, Ford, General Motors and Rheinmetall Group AG, the Swiss parent of an armaments maker. 

The plaintiffs are tens of thousands of South Africans who claim that these companies aided and abetted racial discrimination, torture, extrajudicial killing and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.  Automakers allegedly supplied military vehicles that security forces used to suppress black South Africans, and IBM is accused of providing equipment used to track dissidents. 

The case is based on the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, which allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts over international law violations. The South African-related lawsuits originally targeted many more U.S. corporations, including oil companies and banking institutions. Judge Scheindlin dismissed most cases on Wednesday on the grounds that merely doing business with a state that violates international norms is not enough.  There needs to be the provision of goods specifically designed to kill, rather than just the general sale of raw materials or the provisions of loans.

The Bush Administration asked the Supreme Court to throw out the case, saying that the lawsuits could become “an irritant in U.S.-South African relations” because they might interfere with South Africa's sovereign right to decide apartheid issues and might discourage investment in South Africa.  The South African government has taken the position that efforts to compensate victims should be pursued within South Africa’s political and legal processes.
-Angela Chen
Apartheid Claims Against Ford, GM, Others, to Go Forward (by Ashby Jones, Wall Street Journal)
NY Judge Rules in Favor of 1970s Apartheid Victims (by Larry Neumeister, Associated Press)


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