(CN) – A federal judge in Manhattan again allowed a lawsuit to proceed against several corporate giants for their alleged role in aiding South Africa’s oppressive apartheid regime. Daimler AG, General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and IBM are accused of “aiding and abetting” human rights violations under the apartheid government.
In October, the South African government reversed its position and threw its support behind the class action, brought in 2002 by victims of apartheid crimes, including torture, rape and denationalization.
The class members filed suit on behalf of “themselves and all black South African citizens” for violations of the law of nations.
From 1960 to 1994, blacks in South Africa were deprived of their citizenship and were forced to become citizens of tribally based homelands called “Bantustans.”
U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin gave the suit new life last year when she gave the plaintiff class the opportunity to sue under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The 220-year-old law lets U.S. federal courts hear human rights cases brought by foreigners alleging violations of international law.
The defendants unsuccessfully sought dismissal, saying corporations are exempt under the statute.
Judge Scheindlin denied their bid to dismiss the case last spring, and then rejected a motion for “certification of an interlocutory appeal” in the most recent action.
Her 144-page opinion in April stated that Daimler, GM and Ford should be on the hook for claims that they “aided and abetted torture, extrajudicial killing and apartheid.”
The automakers are accused of providing armored military vehicles used to suppress marches and worker protests, and of assisting security forces tasked with identifying and torturing anti-apartheid leaders.
The judge also allowed claims against IBM to proceed, for providing the technology that allowed the South African government to carry out “geographic segregation and denationalization,” according to the plaintiffs.
Scheindlin said that corporate liability under the Alien Tort Claims Act “is a long-settled question in this Circuit.”
“On at least nine separate occasions, the 2nd Circuit has addressed ATCA cases against corporations without ever hinting — much less holding — that such cases are barred,” the judge wrote.
The 2nd Circuit remanded parts of the apartheid cases back to district court.
In her most recent ruling, she noted that the 2nd Circuit didn’t tackle the issue directly, only stating that it was “assum[ing], without deciding, that corporations … may be held liable for the violations of customary international law.”
The appeals court added that it was not “reach[ing] the question of whether international law extends the scope of liability to corporations.”
“The 2nd Circuit has made clear that it has not yet decided the question of corporate liability,” Scheindlin wrote. “However, it has not provided any reason to believe that there are substantial grounds for disagreement about the correct result in a case where that question is presented.”
In 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to intervene in the lower court’s decision to hear the claims, due to the recusal of four justices.