TotalEnergies, a French energy giant operating in Uganda yesterday (Wednesday), December 7, 2022 appeared in a Paris criminal court in France to defend itself in a case in which six Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) accuse it of “failing in its duty of vigilance” on two massive oil drilling and pipeline projects in Uganda and Tanzania.
The case came up after years of delay.
Four Ugandan NGOs including Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), the French organisation Survie along with Friends of the Earth accuse TotalEnergies of disregarding human rights and the environment as it moves forward with the massive infrastructure deals.
The Tilenga 419-well drilling project in Buliisa and Nwoya districts in Bunyoro and Acholi regions respectively in Uganda, which is partly located in a natural park, and the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project running from Hoima district in Bunyoro region are intended to transport hydrocarbons to the Indian Ocean by crossing 1,400 kilometres of Tanzania.
Once built, EACOP will be the longest oil pipeline in the world.
The NGOs are calling on the company to comply with a 2017 French law passed that compels multinationals to respect “duty of care” regarding their activities.
The legislation obliges TotalEnergies to “prevent serious violations of human rights, health and safety of people and the environment” when dealing with foreign subcontractors and suppliers through a “vigilance plan” that must map risks and establish measures to prevent them.
Court case hindered by technicalities
The case had been delayed for three years due to a procedural battle that TotalEnergies eventually lost.
The active phase of the project began in February, and oil production in Uganda is due to start in 2025, despite condemnation of the project by the European Parliament, four United Nations special rapporteurs and numerous political and religious leaders and associations.
Wednesday’s hearing in Paris – which was attended by several associations and politicians, including the MPs in a fully packed court who instigated the law – is the first to be held on the merits of the case before the courts since the legislation was passed by the French parliament five years ago.
The NGOs’ lawyer, Mr Louis Cofflard, told the court he regretted that TotalEnergies had not taken advantage of the past three years of proceedings to “commit itself and comply with its obligations”, adding that there was a “certain form of cynicism” on the part of the oil and gas group.
Outlining the alleged shortcomings of TotalEnergies’ vigilance plan, he expressed his regret that it did not include “the environmental risks and climate impacts associated with the project”.
“The survival of humanity is at stake with this type of project,” he insisted.
Mr Cofflard returned to what had initially prompted the legal action, namely the partial or total displacement of 118,000 people in the two countries under compensation conditions that did not comply with World Bank standards, as originally promised by TotalEnergies in its vigilance plan. Some 28,000 people are still waiting for financial compensation.
It was also pointed out that freedom of expression is still being violated for protestors in these authoritarian East African countries. The Ugandan witnesses present in 2019 did not make the trip this time, for reasons of personal safety.
The lawyers for the NGOs have asked the judge to order the company to adopt a vigilance plan in accordance with the law and to mandate its implementation.
Even though this is not provided for in the 2017 law, they are asking the court to order a suspension of the work as a precautionary measure, referring to the resolution adopted in September by the European Parliament, which strongly condemned this project.
At the hearing, MEP Pierre Larrouturou (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats), who introduced the resolution, complained that “the TotalEnergies lawyers are avoiding debate, claiming that what is happening at the local level is not their concern, while tens of thousands of people are suffering.”
Lawyer Céline Gagey, on behalf of Survie, listed the reasons for opposition to the projects and the damaging statistics that lie at the heart of the case.
Some “118,000 partial expropriations [of land] are necessary” she said, but the people who need to be compensated – often small farmers – are “deprived of the right to work their land before receiving any compensation.”
The court heard that some 28,000 people are still waiting for compensation and TotalEnergies is not taking any measures to prevent thousands of farmers from being deprived of the right to use their land.
Ms Gagey called on the court to order the group to pay them immediately.
NGOs are ‘obstinate’ – TotalEnergies
TotalEnergies’ lawyer, Antonin Lévy, said he could have “spent five hours denouncing the failings” and untruths of the NGOs, but preferred to focus on “the inadmissibility of their claim.”
He noted that the summons issued in 2019 were aimed at the 2018 vigilance plan – which has since evolved.
Plus, he argued that that the Paris court cannot take extra-territorial action, maintaining that the project is led by TotalEnergies Uganda, a subsidiary of the French group.
The NGOs want to put “TotalEnergies, Tilenga and EACOP, Tanzania, Uganda and their leaders on trial”, he said, denouncing the “obstinacy in trying to be the emblematic case, the one that will perhaps set a precedent, to the detriment of the populations concerned.”
The ruling has been set for February 28, 2023.