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Apartheid Lawsuits Against Multinational Corporations Get Green Light from N.Y. District Court Judge

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Human rights lawsuits aim to hold multinational corporations liable for their role in South African apartheid

The human rights gods are smiling: As if yesterday's Fujimori verdict wasn't enough, a U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York has ruled that historic lawsuits against multinational corporations for complicity in apartheid-era human rights abuses can move forward.

This afternoon, Judge Shira Scheindlen ruled against a motion to dismiss the claims brought against the defendants General Motors, Ford, Daimler and IBM. The lawsuits -- Ntsebeza, et al. v. Daimler AG, et al. and Khulumani, et al., v. Barclays National Bank LTD., et al. -- were filed on behalf of classes of South Africans who allege that the defendant corporations aided and abetted South African forces in extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary denationalization, and the crime of apartheid. The claims were brought under the Alien Tort Statute.

Ruling available here. [PDF]

In her ruling, Judge Scheindlen held that the claims made against General Motors, Ford, and Daimler in the Ntsebeza case alleging the aiding and abetting of torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, extrajudicial killing, and apartheid can continue. Judge Scheindlen also ruled that a claim against IBM alleging the aiding and abetting of arbitrary denationalization and apartheid could move forward.

"In this case, the expertise and products of General Motors, Ford, Daimler, and IBM led to violations of human rights under apartheid in South Africa," said Paul Hoffman, a partner with Schonbrun De Simone Seplow Harris and Hoffman LLP and lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "These companies aided the apartheid regime by providing armored military vehicles to violently suppress and terrorize South Africa's black population, and provided race-based identity documents that stripped black South Africans of their nationality and citizenship."

Following the disappointing defeat in November of Bowoto v. Chevron a case brought against Chevron on behalf Nigerian villagers, the ruling breathes new life into a class of impact human-rights litigation seeking to establish that corporations have obligations under international law not to be complicit in human rights violations.

"The corporate sector was an active participant in the brutality of the South African apartheid regime," said Tyler Giannini, Clinical Director of Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program and one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. "This ruling sends a signal that corporations can be held accountable for contributing to human rights abuses around the globe."

Another case to keep your eyes on: the civil action filed against Shell for human rights abuses in Nigeria and complicity in the death of famed author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Wiwa v. Shell is set to go to trial in New York on May 29, 2009.