A New York judge has given the green light to sue multinationals such as Ford and General Motors for their alleged role in the segregation, torture and killing of blacks in South Africa.
Class action suits have been cleared to proceed against Ford, GM and Daimler for allegedly “aiding and abetting” torture and extrajudicial killing by supplying military vehicles used in the persecution of blacks during South Africa’s apartheid regime. IBM faces similar charges for allegedly providing computers for the surveillance of rebels, and Germany-based defence giant Rheinmetall may face a suit for its alleged role in arms dealing. “One who substantially assists a violator of the law of nations is equally liable if he desires the crime to occur or if he knows it will occur and simply does not care,” wrote Judge Shira Scheindlin in her April 8 ruling.
The battle for reparations has been a long one for the plaintiffs, who first filed in 2002. Due in part to warnings from the U.S. and South Africa about negative foreign policy implications, the cases were initially thrown out. (The Court of Appeals partially overturned the ruling in 2007.) But Scheindlin, who narrowed the scope of claims and the number of companies named, calls the international relations fears “speculative at best.”
The corporations involved have so far been largely silent on the ruling. However, in an email, a GM spokesman told Maclean’s that his company “adamantly opposed apartheid,” and has “asked the court to reconsider key parts of its ruling or, in the alternative, to certify those issues for appeal.”
But Michael Hausfeld, attorney for the plaintiffs, is optimistic, saying the ruling throws open the doors to similar cases worldwide. “It sets a new standard with regard to obligations concerning fundamental human rights abuses on a global level,” he says.