A US judge has ruled that lawsuits can be brought against a number of multinational corporations accused of aiding South Africa’s apartheid regime. The ruling in April 2009 by New York District Judge Shira Scheindlin means that companies, known to have supplied the South African security forces at the time with equipment used to suppress dissent, can be sued by thousands of apartheid victims for “aiding and abetting the apartheid.”

Judge Scheindlin dismissed complaints against several companies, including British bank Barclays and Swiss bank UBS, but said plaintiffs could proceed with lawsuits against IBM, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, German arms manufacturer Rheinmetal and Japanese computer company Fujitsu. Whilst dismissing accusations of corporate defendants ‘merely doing business’ with the apartheid government, the judge disagreed with IBM’s argument that it was not the company’s place to tell clients how to use its products. “That level of wilful blindness in the face of crimes in violation of the laws of nations,” she said, “cannot defeat an otherwise clear showing of knowledge that the assistance IBM provided would directly and substantially support apartheid.”

The plaintiffs argue that the car and arms manufacturers and computer companies knew their products would be used by South African forces to suppress dissent and were, thus, complicit in the crimes committed by the apartheid regime. Ford and General Motors are known to have supplied military vehicles, while IBM and Fujitsu provided equipment to monitor rebels. The ruling comes seven years after a complaint was filed by several groups of apartheid victims against companies accused of aiding the South African apartheid regime. According to media reports, more than 50 companies were initially sued but, after a court demanded more specific details, the plaintiffs decided to target fewer companies.

Both the US and South African governments, of course, supported the companies’ efforts to get the complaints dismissed, arguing that the legal actions were “damaging to international relations” and “may threaten South Africa’s economic development.”

Anti-corporate campaigners hope the ruling will open the doors to similar cases worldwide, with companies complicit in the Israeli apartheid regime in occupied Palestine being the most obvious candidates (see here and here for some examples).

Original article at http://www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=3220

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