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Doing business with human rights violators

This isn’t an overtly “religion and politics” post, though I think this ties in quite well with the concept Ubuntu, a Bantu language word used in post-Aparthe id South Africa to refer to what Archbishop Desmond Tutu defined as “my humanity being inextricably bound up in what is yours and vice versa.”

About two weeks ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ruled that a broad group of multinationa l companies must face a $400 billion dollar lawsuit, which accuses them of aiding South Africa’s repressive Apartheid regime during its reign. The suit, brought forward by victims including those who were tortured and family members of those who were killed under the brutally racist system, alleges that the dozens of companies involved in the lawsuit knowingly helped the Apartheid regime by selling it weapons and providing financing and loans, while benefiting from Apartheid government policies that gave corporations cheap labor and loads of government services.

I can’t see anything but good news in this, as the one thing that might make companies cease doing business with internationa l human rights violators is a $400 billion wake up call. Among the companies included in this South Africa lawsuit include JPMorgan Chase, General Motors, Credit Suisse, Citigroup, Exxon Mobil and IBM, to name a few. All did business with the Apartheid regime, even though these companies knew that the regime officially called for the separation of the races, practiced forced resettlement for non-whites, criminalized interracial marriage, and instituted policies that created white-only hospitals, white-only busses, and white-only business zones. That’s not to mention the regime’s policies on cracking down on those who fought against Apartheid, which resulted in the torture, detention and murder of scores of citizens.

The Bush administrati on opposes this lawsuit, saying that lawsuits against companies that knowingly do business with human rights repressive regimes hampers “the policy of encouraging positive change in developing countries through economic development. ” It’s thinking like this, though, that has allowed companies to reap billions of dollars of profits off of violence in South Africa, Burma, Sudan, and the like, while citizens in those countries are systematical ly beaten, raped, tortured, detained, and often times killed.

This lawsuit still has a few mountains to climb before any group of Apartheid victims can claim victory, or before some measure of accountabili ty is obtained for companies that tacitly supported Apartheid with their services and investments.  

But for now, let’s hope the reverberatio ns of this $400 billion lawsuit are giving companies second thoughts about doing business with known human rights violators. I’m immediately reminded of another Desmond Tutu quote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

Similarly, if you are neutral in situations of injustice, but you make a steady profit off of those who continually oppress (Citigroup, IBM, Exxon Mobil, and the others), you have chosen the side of the oppressor. Here’s hoping the courts reaffirm this message as the lawsuit moves forward.


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2 Responses to “Doing business with human rights violators”

  1. Similarly, if you are neutral in situations of injustice, but you make a steady profit off of those who continually oppress (Citigroup, IBM, Exxon Mobil, and the others), you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

    You know what’s amusing about this? The current government of South Africa probably has all kinds of dealings with Citigroup, IBM, Exxon Mobil, and thousands and thousands of other companies around the world that had also contributed to the previous apartheid regime. And I’ll bet the current South African government doesn’t have a problem with that. My guess is that the plaintiffs all use products and services from more than one of the various companies.

    I also wouldn’t be using a quote from a rampant anti-Semite to make a point about “oppression” .

  2. This could certaintly open a pandora’s box. Any company doing business anywhere in the world could be liable for lawsuits if this is successful. Who doesn’t do business with a country that has been accused of human rights violations including the US. Anyone doing business with China, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Russia, etc will be liable for lawsuits. Want to see the price of everything go up to cover legal costs and settlements? Just another “feel good” lawsuit that will help nobody except the lawyers.

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