When is a multinational at risk for “aiding and abetting” human rights violations?

The answer is evolving. One case on the issue is Khulumani v. Barclay National Bank Ltd., 504 F.3d 254 (2d Cir. 2007). Recent developments are described in an interesting law.com article online as of today and written by Professor Georgene Vairo of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles; the article is available here

Much of the article focuses on an April 8, 2009 opinion by Judge Scheindlin that analyzes the issues in depth on a motion to dismiss in a case known as In re South African Apartheid Litigation. The opinion dismissed some claims but sustained others. The opinion by Judge Scheindlin is here, and seems well worth reading. Of note, the opinion allows American Pipe tolling of statutes of limitation in favor of the plaintiffs. That’s a powerful incentive to the filing of class actions. It’s also a weapon against governments – I may have been the first to apply it against the U.S. government, which we did successfully when representing businesses seeking to recoup taxes paid under an unconstitutional “Harbor Maintenance” tax. See Stone Container Corp. v. U.S., 229 F.3d 1345 (Fed. Cir. 2000).

The following excerpt from Professor Vairo’s article provides a summary of some but not all of the “aiding and abetting” and conspiracy issues evaluated by Judge Scheindlin:

“On the other hand, she refused to dismiss claims that Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and other companies aided and abetted torture and other atrocities committed by the regime, such as arbitrary denationalization by a state actor and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment because such torts are well established in the community of nations.

Scheindlin’s opinion is important because she takes a careful look at the standards for imposing liability, noting that the 2d Circuit had not left her with precise standards on a number of issues. Having established that aiding and abetting may violate the ATS does not answer the question of the type of mens rea required by nonstate actors. She rejected the defendants’ argument that specific intent be required, holding instead that international law “requires that an aider and abettor know that its actions will substantially assist the perpetrator in the commission of a crime or tort in violation of the law of nations.”She noted that the 2d Circuit had not addressed the question of whether conspiratorial liability was a tort cognizable under the ATS, but found that there was no consensus among nations and therefore refused to recognize conspiracy as a tort. According to Scheindlin, the defendants’ political-question and international-comity arguments were largely eviscerated by her rulings on each of the classes of claims raised in the case. She noted the U.S. State Department’s opposition to the litigation, as well as that of the current government of South Africa. She dismissed the State Department’s arguments because they were vague, on the one hand, and irrelevant to the remaining claims. The political-question doctrine argument would have merit had the case impacted U.S. foreign policy, but she failed to see how litigating the remaining claims would have any impact on it at all.”