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U.S. high court allows apartheid claims against multinationals

The suit argues that by doing business with South Africa, the companies abetted the racist former regime.

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The list of defendants in the case reads like a who's who of international business: Bank of America, Barclay's Bank, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, BP, ChevronTexaco, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Daimler, and Deutch Bank, to name a few.

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Lawyer Paul Hoffman told the justices in his brief that none of the legal issues in the case were yet ripe for high court review. He said the plaintiff's lawyers were substantially narrowing their aiding and abetting charges and should be allowed to present this new version of the suit to the trial judge before facing appellate review.

"Failure to recognize any theory of aiding and abetting liability under the [Alien Tort Statute] would grant those complicit in the most egregious human rights crimes an unwarranted immunity," Mr. Hoffman wrote.

Lawyers for the companies said Hoffman was trying to hide behind procedural maneuvers. Barron said that lawyers for the victims of apartheid have already filed five amended complaints and have had four years since a related Supreme Court ruling in 2004 in which to reconfigure their lawsuit.

The corporations and the Bush Justice Department argued in their briefs that the case interferes with US foreign policy and places judges in the role of world legislators deciding which international human rights violations to punish.

In his brief, Hoffman said the lower courts have not yet ruled on the foreign-policy implications of the suit. Supreme Court review should await future decisions by the district court and appeals court, he said.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, The National Foreign Trade Council, a group of 300 corporations, said the area of international law concerning aiding and abetting is "in complete disarray."

"Immediate resolution of the widespread uncertainty over this issue is vital," wrote Jeffrey Lamken in the NFTC brief. "Firms need to know the risks of doing business in foreign countries."

One of the complaints filed by the apartheid victims says in part: "Recent historical evidence demonstrates that the participation of the defendants' companies in the key industries of oil, armaments, banking, transportation, technology, and mining was instrumental in encouraging and furthering the abuses." The complaint adds, "[The companies'] conduct was so integrally connected to the abuses that apartheid would not have occurred in the same way without their participation."

A website maintained by one of the lawyers for the apartheid victims characterizes the case this way: "This complaint seeks to hold those businesses that aided and abetted the apartheid regime responsible for the wrongs they made possible. For example: IBM and ICL [International Computers Ltd.] provided the computers that enabled South Africa to create the hated pass book system and to control the black South African population. Car manufacturers provided the armored vehicles that were used to patrol the townships. Arms manufacturers violated the embargoes on sales to South Africa, as did the oil companies. The banks provided the funding that enabled South Africa to expand its police and security apparatus."