US courts put corporations on notice over human rights
General Motors and IBM are among the latest in the firing line after a federal court ruled that apartheid victims can sue the corporate giants for aiding the former white South African regime.
New York -- A spate of US court cases is lighting a fire under the feet of powerful corporations doing business in countries that commit human rights abuses, analysts said Thursday.
General Motors and IBM are among the latest in the firing line after a federal court ruled Wednesday that apartheid victims can sue the corporate giants for aiding the former white South African regime.
Next month Royal Dutch/Shell will be in court, defending itself against charges of complicity in horrific government abuses against Nigeria's Ogoni people, including the 1995 execution of renowned activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Other cases include claims from Iraqis against controversial US-based contractors like Blackwater (now known as Xe), accused of aiding and abetting abuses during the conflict in Iraq.
In each instance, victims are taking advantage of a US law known as the Alien Tort Claims Act that requires companies with a substantial presence in the United States to obey US law -- everywhere in the world.
Little used to date, the law has put on notice companies operating in the rougher corners of the globe.
"There is a progression," said Jennie Green at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "It is changing the landscape ... It's adding to the list of legal restrictions that they have to obey."
In Wednesday's ruling, Judge Shira Scheindlin said that the South African plaintiffs could pursue claims against Daimler, GM and Ford "for aiding and abetting torture ... extrajudicial killing, and apartheid."
Scheindlin also cleared the way for lawsuits against IBM for "aiding and abetting arbitrary denationalization and apartheid," and against Rheinmetall -- the German parent company of Swiss-based arms manufacturer Oerlikon -- for "aiding and abetting extrajudicial killing and apartheid."
Michael Hausfeld, one of the attorneys representing the apartheid victims, hailed "a major advancement in international law."
"I think it's a landmark decision, extremely significant in the field of corporate responsibility and human rights violations," he told AFP.
"The court upheld a standard for determining when and under what circumstances a corporation could be held accountable for aiding and abetting a violation of customary international law."
Peter Rosenblum, a Columbia University law professor specializing in human rights, said the Alien Tort Statute is too narrowly defined to risk inundating corporations with claims.
"You're very limited to the kind of cases you can bring. They have to be flagrant violations," he said.
But coming in the same week that former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years prison for death-squad crimes, such cases demonstrate that the world's powerful -- whether politicians or companies -- are not untouchable.
"These things don't just expire. In that sense, there's accountability," Rosenblum said.
"There is a lot going on in the world of corporations in human rights and there is attention to it ... They say there's nothing like a law suit to focus the mind."