Apartheid cases vs Ford and IBM revived in Manhattan

Article by Christian A., on April 21, 2014

United States District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan has accepted an argument from a group of plaintiffs that corporations like Ford Motor Co. and IBM may be held liable under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, thereby reviving a 12-year old lawsuit claiming that the corporations encouraged race-based human rights abuses in apartheid-era South Africa decades ago.

The Alien Tort Statute allows non-US citizens to pursue some cases in US courts over alleged violations of international law. Scheindlin wrote in her decision that no principle of domestic or international law supports the conclusion that the “norms enforceable through” the Alien Tort Statute apply only to natural persons and not to corporations.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had said in in August 2013 that the lawsuit should be dismissed. Diane Sammons, a partner at Nagel Rice law firm who represents some plaintiffs, remarked that "Judge Scheindlin is “not taking the word of the defendants” that corporations are not liable for human rights abuses under the 1789 law.

Sammons disclosed that is planning to file an amended complaint. The plaintiffs argued that by supplying military vehicles and computers to South African security forces, several corporations in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s had aided and abetted the country’s former apartheid government in committing abuses like killings and torture.

The litigation seeks class action status. In April 2013, the US Supreme Court limited the coverage of the Alien Tort Statute, in the case Kiobel et al v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co et al., holding that the 1789 law was presumed to cover only violations of international law occurring in the US. It also held that violations elsewhere must "touch and concern" US territory "with sufficient force to displace the presumption." [source: Reuters]

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