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Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 09:28 GMT 10:28 UK
Should victims of apartheid be compensated?
Banks who allegedly profited from the "blood and misery" of South Africans under apartheid are being sued for billions of dollars of compensation.

Lulu Petersen, whose 13-year-old brother Hector was shot dead by Soweto police in 1976, is heading a group of four apartheid victims suing Citigroup, Credit Suisse and UBS.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are encouraging others to join the case, saying that the banks assisted the apartheid regime by giving loans and making money on other business deals with the South African Government while a United Nations embargo was in place.

UBS say they will fight with every means available as they view the case to be without any merit.

Do you think the banks are liable? Should compensation be given to people who suffered under apartheid? What are the chances of winning this action?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

It about time the big banks realised that they do not operate in a moral vacuum, and that they should be accountable for their actions. most of them are richer than governments, and more powerful, but completely out of control. They should bear the full cost of rebuilding South Africa's economy and infrastructure.
Terry Uohnson, UK

I believe all institutions who upheld and supported that system should be sued.

Denise Gordon, Sarajevo
As a South African who grew up under that crippling apartheid regime, I believe all institutions who upheld and supported that system should be sued. The world supported the victims of the holocaust when they sued for their suffering, why should it be any different for other oppressed groups?
Denise Gordon, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Why limit litigation to banks? Surely every pension fund and private investor should be sued. No one should be permitted to profit from apartheid. Ex-pats who worked in South Africa should have to pay back their earnings. If they are deceased then their heirs should be held responsible.
McKane, UK

The double standard of some of the correspondents here is unbelievable. In the US, you go to the court for any number of reasons if there is even a hint of making money. The US has fought with its lobby groups to compensate the Nazi victims (which is right). How can then the apartheid victims or slavery victims be not compensated? Just because they affect US companies. The excuses are pathetic.
Tridiv Borah, Germany/India

Maybe listening to a law court might bring back morals to an otherwise vapid industry.

The people of South Africa have every right to sue the institutions who funded the party that destroyed their lives. By financing the brutal regime they gave them power and ensured that they would continue to be in power. The oppression witnessed in South Africa was horrific for all to see in a modern society and that was obvious to all. I always checked the credentials of the banks I have been a customer with since I was a very young girl and was heavily swayed by the protests I experienced at university by people telling me which banks to support and which banks to avoid. Protest is nothing new to these financial institutions. Opposition against them and the companies/regimes they fund have been going on for years. They have never listened to the protests before so maybe listening to a law court might bring back morals to an otherwise vapid industry.

Yes, they should most definitely be compensated for the abomination that was apartheid. So should the true Americans, Australians and New Zealanders be compensated. It's about time for these oppressive tyrants to be held to task for the years of barbaric, debauched misery they┐ve inflicted on people because of their colour, race or creed. Chances of winning this action? Fair to middling.
Kevin B, UK in US

Getting money for being oppressed will not change anything. The oppression has still been done and will never be erased from the victims' minds.
Bryce, USA

When Western financiers do avoid countries the usual result is poverty, despair and starvation.

Joe, USA
The police officer who shot the boy was a representative of the South African government not an employee of a bank. When Western financiers do avoid countries the usual result is poverty, despair and starvation. Choosing between corruption and famine is not a decision for a banker whose experience most likely is limited to financial calculations. These are decisions, which much be made at a diplomatic level. Leave the banks out of it or more people will suffer in the future.
Joe, USA

Yes these firms should be held responsible for the consequences of their action. This could set a precedent which would make financiers very wary of propping up criminal regimes. We might even reach a situation where ending oppressive policies would be a condition for a loan. This would be a good counterweight to the IMF and World Bank insistence on the ending of progressive policies.
Charles Moore, Scotland

Let us not lose sight of the fact that these bank loans were used by the apartheid government to build up an infrastructure in South Africa unrivalled in Africa. Yes, some parts of the infrastructure (for e.g. Sasol, Armscor) were designed purely for 'sanctions-busting' purposes but now, they are amongst the country's biggest companies contributing to the SA government's efforts to rebuild the nation. What a pity it would have been for a democratic government to have inherited no assets with which to improve the quality of life of those who suffered under apartheid!
Walter, France

I believe that the only reason this is being discussed again is down to money.

Melanie, England
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was very clear that what had happened in the past was wrong. I believe that the only reason this is being discussed again is down to money. Surely it is time that these people started looking into the future rather than what they can make from the past.
Melanie, England

I remember as a kid, my parents would not buy anything from south Africa as a protest against the regime, and I know that many other people did the same. Surely anyone with morals would have avoided anything to do with south Africa, unless it was to help get rid of apartheid. I am not necessarily saying that they should be sued, but questions should be asked on why the felt they should go against world opinion and help this terrible regime.
Paula, UK

If I lent a friend $100 and he buys a gun with it and shoots someone, am I responsible? It seems once again, that yet another African country has pointed their finger at the Western World because they are incapable of dealing with their own problems.
Myles Streuli, Switzerland

Lulu Peterson wants to "bring the white regime to justice", but I don't see how she is going to accomplish that by punishing American financiers. This really has nothing to do with apartheid, which will not be set right by any sum of money.
Pierre Yardin, South Africa

This is a ridiculous legal case

Sean Fear, UK
If a company were to be held liable for the misdeeds of the government of a country with which it did business, then no Western company would do business with people in the third world. Far from helping the inhabitants of third world countries, that would damage their interests immensely. This is a ridiculous legal case, fuelled by the greed of US lawyers operating on huge contingency fees.
Sean Fear, UK

The civilised answer is yes. What are the limits to which you can take this type of litigation? What needs to be set up is a United Nations-based court, which could oversee these international litigation cases.
Stephen G, UK Tyne & Wear

Mmm, how about we sue the Danish for their Viking invasion and Italians for taking us as slaves and feeding us to the lions?
Leah Harlow, United Kingdom

Anyone who lost at the hands of exploitation has the right to reclaim their losses from the takers.
Regine, US

Apartheid was legal

Christopher Magee, USA
I can't see the validity of a case for actions taking place at a time where apartheid was legal. As convenient a target as these firms are, a strong moral case is not necessarily a strong legal case.
Christopher Magee, USA

Not only should banks be sued, but a whole host of consumer product multinationals who saw South Africa as one big market to profit from.
Harish Rao, India

Investment in developing countries would slow to a miserly trickle

John, USA
If a precedent were set that banks could be held liable for the human rights violations of developing world governments, then private investment in developing countries would slow to a miserly trickle. It is the responsibility of governments, not private firms, to set policy and to create incentives. If courts can retrospectively change policy, then policy in this area becomes meaningless. If this lawsuit were successful, it would be very bad news for the poor people of the world.
John, USA

These banks could have denied investment as a protest against a corrupt and evil regime but they chose the almighty dollar instead. I find it interesting that so far the nays seem to all be from US citizens...
Mark, UK

In 20 years will the people of Afghanistan sue the Taleban or the US Government (who I am sure are making money out of last year's tragedy)? No - apartheid victims should not be allowed to sue. South Africa has endured enough years of Truth and Reconciliation commissions. No one condones the fact that these banks have made money by blood being spilt but where will it end??
Carolyn, SA in Oz

The financial world has too long pretended aloofness

H Brewer, Spain
Absolutely. The real crimes are committed by people who stand by and watch while atrocities are carried out. Profiting from suffering is almost worse than the brutality itself because there is a pretence of innocence. The financial world has too long pretended aloofness from the effects it has on people's lives. This sort of lawsuit will help to bring home that the wealthy cannot just pretend their wealth can be enjoyed with no responsibility for where it comes from.
H Brewer, Spain

This is a moral dilemma we find often in corporate annual meetings in the US. When is ignorance in business relations a reasonable excuse for supporting unfair or even illegal acts? How closely should corporations oversee the acts of their associates? Laws may be fair, but who said they were always just?
Richard Namon, USA

It's time to look to building a better future for millions of South Africans

John McNally, Singapore
It's time to move on. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission played an important role in the healing of the nation, now this promises to re-open old wounds. It's time to look to building a better future for millions of South Africans rather than dragging up the past. I would rather see fresh foreign investment in Africa, rather than lawsuits which might frighten off much needed investment.
John McNally, Singapore

Years of brutal oppression and injustice were possible because of the hidden powers like these who acted to strengthen the perpetrators. It is justice to bring them out in the light and expose the evil capitalist powers which disregard human values and work to profit from everything possible.
Wasiul Haider, USA

This is insanity. Everyone wants the easy solution to poverty and corruption by blaming the guilt-ridden West. This ignores the fact the South Africa under apartheid was the most economically developed nation in Africa. People from around the continent emigrated to SA for the jobs provided at wages not attainable elsewhere. This will surely shrink any future investment and who can blame the banks? Let the Third World sort out its own problems from now on.
Matthew Grace, USA

Compensation will not relieve the suffering and the humiliation inflicted to the people of South Africa but at least it will show some gesture of remorse.
Mike Aziz, Vancouver,Canada

The companies that did business in South Africa in the past are the very same companies that continue to do business in the present. To target these companies for crimes which they may have done in the past will only make South Africans suffer in the future.
Edan, USA

This is ethical and has legal precedence too. The Swiss banks were forced to pay a lump of cash a few years ago for keeping the Nazi gold. I fail to see why this case should be any different.
Behzad Torabi, Canada

Allowing this type of litigation is ridiculous!

Bill Dycus, USA
Even allowing this type of litigation proceed to the courts is ridiculous! The people of any nation have more potential to change that nation than any external entity ever will. The people of South Africa ousted the apartheid government. How can they blame the actions of local police on any entity thousands of miles away?
Bill Dycus, USA

Damages could be used to combat AIDS

Tim Saunders, New Zealand (ex-UK)
I hope the banks get sued all the way out of their pinstriped trousers. The people of South Africa did not oust the apartheid government on their own - it happened when the Cold War ended and dirty regimes were no longer needed by the West. If the banks pay damages this money could be used to combat AIDS which has spread as a result of the former government's neglect.
Tim Saunders, New Zealand (ex-UK)

Why not? Jewish victims of Nazism have been suing big companies for years.
M.M.Zaman, UK

In a word, NO! This is another group of American attorneys looking for the deepest pockets. I would support the effort if the attorneys all pledged to renounce compensation for any settlements reached. We would then see how dedicated they are to justice.
Marten King, USA

They should be no more immune than Nazi financiers

Luke Rendell, UK living in Canada
Absolutely! If it discourages banks from investing in corrupt regimes in the future, all the better. There is no defence for profiteering from brutal oppression; the banks knew what they were getting into and they should be no more immune than Nazi financiers. If it is wrong to do business with terrorists how can it be right to have made money from the terror of apartheid?
Luke Rendell, UK living in Canada

Creditors should not be held accountable for the actions of their customers.
Michael L. Boom, USA

The capitalist banking system is the most unethical in the world and it is good to see that they will be held responsible for blatant disregard for human lives and the misery they heap on hardworking people, just for the sake of a fistful of dollars.
Dahud A Khan, UK

These suits deserve to be thrown out of the courts. The banks were obviously targeted because of their deep pockets, and not because the tangential role they played in apartheid. America's litigation craziness seems to be spreading throughout the world. Surely there are many more South African companies that bear a much greater and direct blame for apartheid, but I'm sure that the current South African government has no wish to cripple its own economy.
Jack S., USA

Nobody should profit from this

Alan Wilson, UK in NL
The companies took the profits fast enough when they knew they were sponsoring misery. They should pay, but in such a way that the employees of these companies don't suffer, a cap on fat cat bonus payments with annual subscriptions to charities that work with the poor in South Africa would be what I would like to see. Nobody should profit from this.
Alan Wilson, UK in NL

See also:

17 Jun 02 | Africa
17 Jun 02 | Africa
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