US judge throws out apartheid lawsuit

Thousands of black South Africans were seeking compensation Keystone Archive

A United States judge has rejected a class-action lawsuit brought by victims of apartheid against major multinationals, including leading Swiss banks.

This content was published on November 30, 2004 minutes

Credit Suisse and UBS, which were named in the suit, said on Tuesday that the ruling vindicated their decision to fight the case.

The litigation, filed in New York on behalf of thousands of black South Africans, accused around 30 multinationals of supporting the former apartheid system.

District Judge John Sprizzo called the actions of the apartheid regime “repugnant” and said decisions by the corporations to do business with it may have been “morally suspect or embarrassing”.

But he said there was no meaningful assertion by the plaintiffs that actions by these firms directly caused the alleged murders, torture, crimes against humanity and other heinous acts in South Africa from 1948 until 1984.

In rejecting the suits, Sprizzo said they bordered on the frivolous and he noted that it was his job to “apply the law and not some moral ideal”.

“At most, by engaging in business with the South African regime, defendants benefited from the unlawful state action of the apartheid government,” he said.

The South African government had urged Sprizzo to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that the multibillion-dollar claims could hurt its economy.


Credit Suisse said it was "pleased" by the judge's ruling, while Switzerland’s largest bank, UBS, said it was satisfied with the decision.

“UBS has always insisted that there were no grounds for this lawsuit,” said spokeswoman Monika Dunant.

“Foreign investors cannot be held responsible for the actions of those who were in power during apartheid.”

However, Ed Fagan, one of the lawyers representing plaintiffs, condemned the judge’s decision as “discriminatory”.

“I am sad to say that the court has refused to recognise that the rights of Africans should be treated in the same way as the rights of Holocaust victims,” he said.

Fagan is a controversial figure in Switzerland, where he is remembered for his role in winning a $1.25 billion (SFr1.42 billion) settlement from Swiss banks over dormant Holocaust-era accounts.

Swiss non-governmental organisations that support the plaintiffs said they too were dismayed by the court’s decision.

Barbara Müller, coordinator of the Campaign to Cancel Southern African Debt, said her organisation would support any appeal.

On Wednesday, lawyers representing some of the plaintiffs said they would appeal against the ruling.

The Khulumani group, which represents 87 victims, said it would continue to fight for compensation.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Swiss firms UBS, Credit Suisse, Nestlé, Novartis, Unaxis, Sulzer, Holcim and Ems Chemie were among those facing multibillion-dollar lawsuits.

Other companies in the firing line included Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Deutsche Bank, Credit Lyonnais, IBM, DaimlerChrysler and ExxonMobil.

UBS maintained that its activities did not violate human rights in South Africa.

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