Mark Sherman | Washington DC, United States
12 May 2008 05:15
The United States Supreme Court said on Monday that it cannot intervene
in an important dispute over the rights of apartheid victims to sue US
corporations in US courts because four of the nine justices had to sit
out the case over apparent conflicts.
The result is that a lawsuit accusing some prominent companies of
violating international law by assisting South Africa's former apartheid
government will go forward.
The court's hands were tied by federal laws that require at least six
justices to hear any case before them.
Short of the required number by one, the court took the only path
available to it and upheld an appeals court ruling allowing the suit to
The justices have ties to Bank of America, Bristol-Myers Squibb,
Colgate-Palmolive, Credit Suisse, Exxon Mobil, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and
Nestle, among nearly three dozen companies that asked the high court to
Business groups, the Bush administration and the current South African
government also sought the high court's intervention. They argued that
the lawsuit is damaging international relations, threatening to hurt
South Africa's economic development and punishing the companies using a
fuzzy concept of aiding violations of international law.
Last year's ruling by the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York
"allows an unprecedented and sprawling lawsuit to move forward and
represents a dramatic expansion of US law", the administration said in
Lawyers for the South Africans bringing the complaint said it was
premature for the Supreme Court to get involved. The lawyers said they
plan to narrow their complaint, perhaps omitting some corporations and
showing more clearly how the companies assisted the apartheid government.
The case involves the Alien Tort Claims Act, an 18th-century law that
allows foreigners to sue in US courts over international law violations.
It was originally intended to allow foreigners to have a place to make
claims against pirates, but the law has been increasingly used in the
last 15 years to sue corporations for their alleged involvement in human
rights abuses overseas.
The lawsuit raises sticky questions about US policy toward governments
accused of repression. For example, the administration said the
government may impose targeted sanctions while still allowing commerce
in order to encourage reform. The suit could undermine that policy. --