n Thursday the 30th of January, the Nanterre French High court refused to hear a complaint brought by Friends of the Earth France, Survie and four Ugandan associations (AFIEGO, CRED, NAPE/Friends of the Earth Uganda and NAVODA) against French oil giant Total.
The plaintiffs, represented by Louis Cofflard, Céline Gagey, and Julie Gonidec, filed a case under summary proceedings against the oil major for failing to comply with its new obligations under the law on duty of vigilance. The case was filed in June regarding Total’s oil mega-project in Uganda and was the first-ever court decision based on the French law.
The lawsuit was filed against Total as part of an effort to get the company to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Total’s report shows that 5,000 people have been displaced as a result of its greenhouse emission, but the groups say the report is inaccurate and that over 50,000 could be affected by the project.
According to the rights groups, Total also intimidated local farmers into signing compensation agreements and forced them off their land before they received any money. Rights groups also say that Total did not take appropriate measures in minimizing its environmental impact within the region.
The groups requested that the court compels Total to have a vigilant plan for any risk identification or specific measures concerning its activities in Uganda. It should also effectively implement urgent measures in response to the violations and risks of violations observed in Uganda in order to improve the situation for affected populations, in accordance with the French law.
But in a statement on Total’s website, the company claims the vigilance plan requirement does not apply to individual projects, such as the one in Tilenga. It further showed that the French Law on Corporate Duty of Care takes a general approach by type of risk, and does not require disclosure of risks specific to individual projects.
However, the three judges presiding over the case ruled that the case did not fall within their jurisdiction, rather it should be tried in the commercial court. The decision has been denounced and is being contested by the plaintiff for reasons ranging from a negative impact moving the matter to the commercial court would have on the future of the case and the fact that it would take several months to obtain a ruling on the case while human rights violations in Uganda continue.
More so, the Commercial Court enables commercial entities (as lay judges) to render justice in disputes between corporations, but the Total case involves serious human rights and environmental violations. Therefore, the rights groups are afraid that the court may not take the appropriate jurisdiction in ensuring Total takes the necessary measures, in putting an end to the abuses in Uganda.
Total represents around one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If by chance a judge decides the activities of the oil company are substandard, it could mark the beginning of a shift in environmental accountability for multinationals around the continent.