Cape Town — Victims of apartheid who are suing 23 leading multinational corporations in American courts on the grounds that the companies collaborated with the policy have been given clearance to take their case forward.
The United States Supreme Court issued an order in Washington, DC, on Monday affirming a decision by a lower court, the effect of which is to allow the case to go ahead. The Supreme Court was unable to hear the case because four of its nine members had to recuse themselves, leaving the court unable to form a quorum.
The Khulumani Support Group, an organisation of apartheid victims and survivors, welcomed the court order as a "significant development" in a statement issued in Cape Town on Tuesday.
It said the decision meant "the critical arguments that corporations should be held accountable for aiding and abetting the perpetration of gross human rights violations, can now be interrogated."
However, New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse reported on Tuesday that it was still "highly uncertain" whether the case would ever go to trial.
She wrote that the court had been sceptical in the past about using the two-century-old American law under which the case is being brought, the Alien Tort Statute, as a means of pursuing cases arising out of human rights violations committed outside the U.S. In a footnote to a previous case, it had said of the apartheid case that there was "a strong argument that federal courts should give serious weight to the executive branch's view of the case's impact on foreign policy." The Bush administration, as well as the South African government, have opposed the case.
Greenhouse also suggested that the court was unable to hear the apartheid case as a consequence of three judges holding stock in defendant companies, and the employment by another company of the son of a fourth judge.
"The outcome calls attention to the occasionally uncomfortable consequences of the justices' ownership of stock in individual companies," she wrote. "With solitary recusals being much more frequent, a 4-to-4 deadlock is a more common outcome than an inability to proceed with the case at all."
Khulumani said its case targetted the multinationals "for having aided and abetted the perpetration of gross human rights violations in South Africa under apartheid by equipping and financing the apartheid government's military and security agencies."
It said all the defendants had operations in apartheid South Africa, and it was seeking damages for "specific violations of internationally recognized human rights norms... by the apartheid government following the United Nations' classification of apartheid as a crime against humanity."
It named the defendants in the case as: Barclay National Bank Ltd., British Petroleum, PLC, Chevrontexaco Corporation, Chevrontexaco Global Energy, Inc., Citigroup, Inc., Commerzbank, Credit Suisse Group, Daimlerchrysler AG, Deutsche Bank AG, Dresdner Bank AG, Exxonmobil Corporation, Ford Motor Company, Fujitsu, Ltd., General Motors Corporations, International Business Machines Corp., J.P. Morgan Chase, Shell Oil Company, UBS AG, AEG Daimler-Benz Industrie, Fluor Corporation, Rheinmetall Group AG, Rio Tinto Group and Total-Fina-Elf.