In a move that will serve as a warning to corporations that aid governments in flagrant abuses of human rights, a federal judge in Manhattan has allowed a lawsuit to go forward against IBM, General Motors, Ford and other corporations over their roles in South Africa's three-decade-long apartheid policy.

In an order (PDF) filed last week, US District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin denied the companies' motion to consider de-certifying the lawsuit as a class action.

Courthouse News reports:

The automakers are accused of providing armored military vehicles used to suppress marches and worker protests, and of assisting security forces tasked with identifying and torturing anti-apartheid leaders.

The judge also allowed claims against IBM to proceed, for providing the technology that allowed the South African government to carry out "geographic segregation and denationalization," according to the plaintiffs.

Among the other defendants in the case is Daimler AG, the manufacturer of Mercedes cars and former owner of Chrysler. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs and "all black South African citizens" for the suffering they endured under the 1960 to 1994 apartheid regime.

The companies being sued had asked Judge Scheindlin to consider de-certifying the lawsuit's class-action status, which would have effectively ended the legal battle. But the judge rejected that motion, and the lawsuit is expected to begin hearings on January 11.

Judge Scheindlin last April struck down another motion from the companies, arguing that corporations are exempt from liability under the Alien Tort Claims Act, but that appeal was struck down as well.

In that ruling, Judge Scheindlin said the large US-based corporations should be tried over claims they "aided and abetted torture, extrajudicial killing and apartheid."

While the defending companies have been mostly quiet about the lawsuit, a GM spokesman said last spring that the company "adamantly opposed apartheid."

Michael Hausfeld, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit is particularly significant because "it sets a new standard with regard to obligations concerning fundamental human rights abuses on a global level."

Last fall, the South African government reversed its position and decided to support the lawsuit. The country's largest labor union joined the class-action as well, arguing that, because apartheid was meant to provide white Africans with a cheap labor pool, "our members were thus among the worst affected."