A federal judge in New York dismissed a human rights suit on Monday against 35 major corporations that did business in South Africa under apartheid, dealing a blow to rights lawyers who have sought to use an 18th-century law to punish international companies that operated under abusive systems.
The ruling, by Judge John Sprizzo of the US District Court in Manhattan, came in response to suits originally brought in 2002 by three separate groups of plaintiffs in eight different federal courts across the US. They argued that the corporations, most of which are American, violated international law by actively helping to support the apartheid system.
They tried to sue the corporations -- Citigroup, General Electric, EI DuPont de Nemours, IBM, General Motors, Shell Oil and Exxonmobil, among others, under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which was passed in 1789 to protect US ships from pirates and US diplomats from attack when they were overseas. But Sprizzo found that his court did not have jurisdiction under the act.
"In a world where many countries may fall considerably short of ideal economic, political and social conditions, this court must be extremely cautious in permitting suits here based upon a corporation's doing business in countries with less than stellar human rights records," Sprizzo wrote, warning that such suits could have "significant, if not disastrous, effects on international commerce."