South Africa apartheid lawsuit – The end of the epopee?

Marek Jan WasinskiAuthor: Marek Jan Wasinski
Assistant Professor and Chair of Public International Law and International Relations – Faculty of Law and Administration, University of Lodz, Poland

On 21 August 2013, the 2nd United States (US) Circuit Court of Appeal reached a decision on a decade long putative class action suits brought on behalf of individuals harmed by the South African apartheid regime. The suits were originally initiated by two groups of plaintiffs, the Balintulo (or Khulumani plaintiffs) and the Ntsebeza plaintiffs against corporate defendants (namely: Daimler, Ford, and IBM). Plaintiffs asserted that the South African subsidiary companies of the defendants aided and abetted violations of customary international law committed by the (then) South African government. It was claimed inter alia that subsidiary companies had sold cars and computers to the South African government, thus facilitating race-based depredations and injustices, including rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings. A legal basis for the US court’s jurisdiction was the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a famous part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, conferring federal jurisdiction over “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States”. The ATS remained dormant nearly for two centuries until it spectacularly entered the stage before 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeal in a Filartiga v Pena-Irala wherein Paraguay citizens were allowed to sue a former Paraguayan police officer allegedly involved in an extrajudicial killing of a Paraguayan dissident’s son in Paraguay. The decision in Filartiga led to a dramatic rise in international human rights litigation in US courts, involving not only suits against private individuals but also against corporate entities for aiding and abetting violations of the law of nations. There were instances of such litigations ending with profitable settlements. For example, in Abdullahi v Pfizer Inc., Pfizer has reportedly agreed to pay $75 million as compensation for illegal clinical trials in Nigeria. Similarly in Wiwa v Shell Oil Co., faced with claims of complicity in murder, torture, and other crimes related to oil production in the Niger Delta, the Shell provided $15.5 million as compensation to those affected.

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