US judge says apartheid suits against firms can go ahead

South African victims of apartheid got the go ahead in the United States this week to continue their pursuit of damage payments from five major US and German firms for aiding decades of oppression under white rule.

In two cases that test the reach of the Alien Tort Claims Act, Southern District of New York Judge Shira Scheindlin said cases seeking payouts from Germany’s Daimler and Rheinmetall Group and the US-based Ford, General Motors and IBM could go ahead, the website reported on Thursday.

The plaintiffs—two groups of South Africans—argue that the firms supported apartheid by selling vehicles, weapons, computer equipment and other items to the regime.

In South Africa, human rights groups welcomed the decision. But Marjorie Dobson of the Khulumani Support Group said that it would appeal the judge’s dismissal of cases against international banks.

Scheindlin, who made the rulings on Wednesday, warned that there were limits on the rights of the plaintiffs, which include tens of thousands of South Africans who want payment for their suffering.

Nonetheless, Michael Hausfeld, lawyer for the apartheid victims in New York, greeted the ruling as representing “great progress”.

Jan Tjan, a US spokesperson for Daimler, called the charges against his firm unjustified.

“We are confident that this will be decided in our interest,” he said.

The cases had been originally rejected by US courts, but were revived under appeal.
The US State Department objected to the cases out of concern they could damage South African-US relations.

Scheindlin narrowed the cases, putting the brake on some of the charges, including that some of them were directly involved in killings. She also dismissed some cases.

Scheindlin conceded that the “commission of inhumane acts” that sustained the brutal regime was “indisputably a tort under customary international law”.

But she added that private firms could not be made responsible for all of apartheid’s ills, saying the international legal system “has not thus far definitively established liability for non-state actors who follow or even further state-sponsored racial oppression”.

Scheindlin found that the plaintiffs’ lawyers had adequately made their point that Daimler, Ford and General Motors and their security personnel were “intimately involved” in several torture cases. The companies also knew equipment sold to the regime was being used to oppress the black majority.

Along the same lines, Scheindlin found that the IBM case could proceed because it knew its computers and software were being used to “register individuals, strip them of their citizenship, and segregate them in particular areas of South Africa”.

The case against Rheinmetall Group, which will also go forward, argues that the German company aided and abetted extrajudicial killing and apartheid through the sale of weapons to South African security forces.

Scheindlin put the brake on cases that argued more serious charges against Daimler, Ford and GM—that they were directly involved in killings—but left it open to being pleaded anew.

Similar claims that IBM and Japan’s Fujitsu were involved in killings and torture were dismissed.

The judge also dismissed claims against Barclays Bank for job discrimination and against Britain’s Barclays and the Swiss UBS for loaning money and backing the purchase of South African defence forces bonds, reported.

Under US law, non-American citizens are allowed to go to court against companies that have a foothold in the US, as long as they can prove that international human rights law has been violated. - Sapa-DPA

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