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Legal News Roundup: January 2021

Although rising concerns about the mutant COVID-19 strain have dominated news headlines globally, there have been landmark cases across the legal sector. From a ground-breaking decision demanding that the Japanese government pay reparations to former Comfort Women to legal action taken by Dominion Voting Systems following claims of their involvement in election fraud during the 2020 Presidential Election, here are some of the top legal headlines in January 2021.

South Korean Court Urges Japan to Pay Reparations to Former Comfort Women

Trigger Warning: Please note that the discussion below contains details of sexual assault which may be disturbing to readers.

In a landmark decision on 7 January 2021, a South Korean court ordered the Japanese government to pay 12 Korean women forced into sexual slavery during World War II US$91,800 (£67,889) each as compensation. While the plaintiffs filed their case at the Seoul Central District Court in 2013, only five of the original 12 plaintiffs are still alive today. Judge Kim Jeong-gon stated in the hearing that, “the Court recognises that the accused committed illegal acts and that the plaintiffs suffered extreme psychological and physical pain hard to imagine”.

The issue of Comfort Women has been an emotionally charged historical dispute between the two countries. The term “Comfort Women” is a euphemism for women who were forced into sexual servitude for the Japanese Imperial Army. Tens of thousands of women were forced into brothels known as “comfort stations”.

However, the Japanese government recently came under fire for refusing to acknowledge the role of the Japanese Imperial Army in the creation of the system of sexual slavery and its forced nature. Japan has argued that South Korea has no jurisdiction over their country and, therefore, refused to accept the order and pay compensation.

The recent ruling is principally symbolic as part of a broader effort undertaken by surviving comfort women to confront the Japanese Government. The plaintiffs accused Japan of whitewashing historical textbooks and accounts of World War II to remove descriptions of wartime sexual slavery. The victims have thus urged the Japanese government to teach a more accurate version of the country’s wartime history.

Despite longstanding debates citing comfort women as central to the historical tensions between Japan and South Korea, the ruling is the first of its kind. Yoon Ji-hyun, Director of Amnesty International Korea, said the ruling was “the first time a South Korean Court held the Japanese government responsible for the sexual slavery by the Japanese military and opened the way to restore justice for the survivors”. An advocacy group, the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan in Seoul, hailed it as “a landmark ruling”.

The court’s decision is likely to exacerbate friction between the two governments and we can anticipate further discontent and diplomatic tension between South Korea and Japan.

LVMH Acquires Tiffany & Co in US$15.8 Billion Acquisition

LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s leading luxury goods group, has acquired Tiffany & Co in a US$15.8 billion (£11.6 billion) acquisition. The deal has been analysed as a move to boost LVMH’s presence in the jewelry sector, a rapidly growing area of the luxury goods market.

The acquisition was first announced by LVMH over a year ago. However, the process was stalled during the pandemic due to disagreements over the original price of the acquisition. In October, LVMH agreed to buy Tiffany & Co at a reduced price of US$15.8 billion, paying US$131.50 (£97.22) a share, down from the originally agreed price of US$135 (£99.35).

Negotiation conflicts threatening the acquisition were caused by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on markets. Analysts had predicted that due to the bans on international travel and the closure of stores, the sector’s sales could plummet by 30 percent. LVMH’s chairman, Bernard Arnault, therefore endeavoured to lower the asking price by claiming that the pandemic had fundamentally altered the value of Tiffany & Co. This led to a hostile battle including a lawsuit brought by Tiffany & Co against LVMH for attempting to back out of the originally agreed price. LVMH later secured a small price cut, paving the way for the ratification of the deal by shareholders last week.

Analysts anticipate that LVMH, home to brands such as Fendi and Veuve Clicquot Champagne, will review its plans and aim to increase online sales in order to revive the brand, including expanding across Asia. Mr Arnault released a statement saying: “We are optimistic about Tiffany’s ability to accelerate its growth, innovate and remain at the forefront of our discerning customers’ most cherished life achievements and memories”.

Israel Rejects WHO Vaccine Request for Palestine Medics

Human rights groups have been accusing Israel of dodging its legal obligations to millions across occupied territories by refusing to distribute vaccines to non-Jewish settlers. Israel has since denied a request made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to make COVID-19 vaccines available to Palestinian medics in order to help avert a health disaster in Palestine. The refusal was attributed to a limited number of vaccines for Israel’s own citizens. There have been wide discrepancies as to the legal obligations of the Israeli government in providing vaccines and helping with Palestinian healthcare.

Citing the Fourth Geneva Convention, human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accused Israel of “institutionalised discrimination” and of ignoring its obligations to distribute vaccines to Palestine as an occupied territory. Hadas Ziv, the Director of Ethics and Content at Physicians for Human Rights Israel, has stated that Israel does have a duty to provide support and vaccines to Palestine, arguing that “it is both a legal and moral obligation”.

Israelis have denied these accusations, with officials blaming the Palestinian National Authority (PA) for not seeking an agreement or cooperation with the Israeli government. They have dismissed these claims and media reports as anti-Semitic attacks.

Invoking the terms of the Oslo Accords, a pair of peace agreements signed by the Palestinians and Israelis in the 1990s, the Israeli government has stated that, legally, the Palestinians are responsible for their own healthcare and response to COVID-19. They have thus denounced responsibility for distributing vaccines to Palestine. The country’s Deputy Health Minister, Yoav Kisch, backed this argument by stating that they might consider offering any surplus of vaccines to the PA at a later stage, but potentially not before mid-2021.

Dominion Voting Systems Files Lawsuit Against Pro-Trump Lawyer Sidney Powell for Defamation

Dominion Voting Systems has filed a defamation lawsuit against right-wing lawyer Sidney Powell based on the assertion that she made false claims against the voting-machine maker. Powell claimed that Dominion’s machines were part of a plot to commit voter fraud in the 2020 election and “steal” the election from President Donald Trump.

Dominion specified in the claim for defamation, filed on 8 January 2021 at the Federal Court in Washington, that it “has suffered enormous reputational and financial harm” because of “false accusations disseminated to a global audience by Powell”. The lawsuit seeks over US$1.3 billion (£960 million) in damages, whilst naming not only Powell but also her law firm and “Defending the Republic” as defendants.

“Defending the Republic” is an organisation founded by Powell in order to help raise funds to help Trump pursue election-related legal challenges. On the organisation's homepage, it states that the aim of the organisation is “to protect and defend the lawful votes of American citizens”.

Sidney Powell has responded to the complaint filed, tweeting to her followers that the lawsuit “is baseless & filed to harass, intimidate and drain our resources as we seek the truth of [Dominions] role in the fraudulent election”. Since tweeting, Powell’s account has been banned by Twitter for promoting a QAnon conspiracy theory, with a Twitter spokesperson stating that “the accounts have been suspended in line with our policy on Coordinated Harmful Activity”. QAnon, a far-right conspiracy group, centers on the belief that a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles are leading a global sex-trafficking ring and plotting against the current US President Donald Trump.

In December, Eric Coomer, Director of Project Strategy and Security for Dominion Voting Systems, stated that he was forced into hiding by death threats. He has since filed a lawsuit personally against Donald Trump, Rudi Giuliani, and Sidney Powell for defamation by spreading false information that he was “responsible for ‘rigging’ the 2020 Presidential Election”. Allegations have included claims that the company was founded in Venezuela and was used to commit voter fraud for the former socialist Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chávez.

Dominion argues Sidney Powell has made a variety of unsubstantiated claims and has created conspiracy theories to the detriment of the company’s reputation, resulting in employees receiving death threats. Senior members of the company have said that they have been forced to spend over US$565,000 (£417,775) on protection for their workers since the election. The company has added that there are “mountains of direct evidence that conclusively disprove Powell’s vote manipulation claims against Dominion”.

Rio Tinto Ordered to Rebuild Ancient Aboriginal Site

Following intense backlash after mining company Rio Tinto blew up 46,000-year-old Aboriginal caves in May 2020, an Australian Parliamentary inquiry has ordered it to find a way to rebuild the historic site.

The decision to destroy the historical site has been called an “inexcusable” act, with historians and archaeologists claiming that the company knew the value of the site before they decided to blow it up to extract iron ore deposits. While caves have long been considered one of Australia's most important archaeological investigation sites, they also contained more than eight million tonnes of high-grade iron ore with an estimated value of £75 million (approximately US$102 million).

A Parliamentary inquiry was established to fully investigate Rio Tinto’s decision-making and assess the damage caused to the right-full owners of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. The inquiry report, titled “Never Again”, resolved that Rio Tinto “knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway”.

Since May, the company’s decision has caused vast reputational damage, and in a statement concerning the inquiry, Rio Tinto said that their actions to destroy the caves “does not reflect the values that [we] aspire to”. The company’s Iron Ore Chief Executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, stated, “we are sorry for the distress we have caused”, adding that “today we also recognise that a review is needed in relation to the management of heritage in Western Australia more broadly”. The outrage caused by the incident resulted in Jacques’ resignation, along with two more senior executives at the company.

Concerns that these actions might be repeated by other mining companies has increased pressure on the Australian government with Senator Pat Dodson telling the Senate in December that, “whilst our report is called Never Again, it’s in a legislative environment where there’s still capacity for an organisation or a company to destroy such a site. So we have a serious problem”.

Crucially, the event has resulted in wider calls for heritage laws to be strengthened. Activists have long called for updates to current heritage protection laws with many citing the destruction of the caves as a prime example of how these laws have failed to protect Aboriginal heritage sites. The report reiterated the need for such alterations and also called upon the Australian Government to offer protection to cultural sites until these laws have been fully updated.


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