Daimler and Rheinmetall facing lawsuit for supporting apartheid crimes

South Africa – Apartheid – German corporations

South African Apartheid victims have suffered a serious setback in their struggle for compensation. The 2nd Circuit Court in the United States established in its decision of 21 August 2013 that based on the Alien Torts Claims Act (ATCA), it will hardly be possible in the future to sue corporations for human rights violations committed outside the United States.

After the Kiobel case from Nigeria, now the claims of Apartheid victims from South Africa have been rejected. However, the survivors will not give up their struggle, and also ECCHR will continue to work towards holding corporations responsible for Apartheid crimes.

Case

The plaintiffs in the proceedings (In re South African Apartheid Litigation) are victims of the South African apartheid regime who are suing eight corporations from the US, Europe and Germany. The defendants include companies from the automotive industry (including Daimler) as well as IT companies and an arms company (Rheinmetall).

The plaintiffs accuse the companies of either directly committing violations in South Africa of human rights guaranteed under customary international law, or of facilitating and supporting state-sponsored human rights violations by supplying materials used in the commission of crimes.

Context

ECCHR is supporting the lawsuit filed in the US by South African victims of the apartheid regime against eight European and US corporations. Together with the New York Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), KASA (Kirchlichen Arbeitsstelle Südliches Afrika) and medico international, ECCHR compiled an amicus curiae brief on the significance of legal proceedings in the context of dealing with human rights violations. This brief was submitted to the court of the Southern District of New York in November 2009.

In a number of official statements, the German government has opposed the lawsuit and has, as such, sided with the corporations. The government claims the case violates its sovereignty, maintaining that such claims against German companies would first need to be brought before a court in Germany. It also contended that the suit represents a threat to international trade since it allegedly creates a high degree of legal uncertainty for corporations.

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Glossary (3)

Definition

Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA)

The Alien Tort Claims Act is a US law on the jurisdiction of US courts in cases concerning violations of public international law. It allows for non-US citizens to bring civil actions before US courts in certain situations. This applies even if the events in question occurred outside the United States.

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Insight

Corporate responsibility

In Pakistan, workers died in a fire at a textile factory because fire safety measures had been neglected. In Peru, people living near a copper mine became ill after pollution leaked into the groundwater. In Bahrain, critics of the regime were arrested and tortured after police used commercial surveillance software to tap their phones and computers. In these three examples, responsibility for human rights violations can be traced back to foreign companies in Germany, Switzerland and the UK, respectively.

Both in economic and legal terms, transnational corporations are the winners of the globalized economy. They are often caught up in a broad range of human rights violations, but the people running the firms are only rarely called before the courts, and even more rarely convicted for their wrongdoing.

However, taking legal action against transnational corporations for violations in their global supply chain is slowly becoming a more viable option. Social movements and NGOs from the Global South are increasingly using legal tools to address human rights violations involving foreign companies by taking action in the countries where these firms are headquartered.

ECCHR aims to use legal mechanisms to help break down unjust economic, social, political and legal power relations around the world. In its Business and Human Rights program, ECCHR assists the political and social struggles of those affected by corporate human rights violations by supporting strategic legal interventions in Europe.

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