PARIS, France, October 23, 2019 (ENS) – Today six environmental groups in France and Uganda, led by Friends of the Earth, are taking the French multinational energy company Total to court for its failure to elaborate and implement its human rights and environmental vigilance plan in Uganda. This is the first legal action under the 2017 French Duty of Vigilance law, which aims to address corporate negligence.

The six groups are seeking emergency proceedings against Total for non-compliance with its legal obligations under the new law.

The plaintiff groups are: Friends of the Earth France, Survie, the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) in Uganda, Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED) in Uganda, National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE)/Friends of the Earth Uganda and NAVODA Uganda.

Total is the main operator of a mega oil project in Lake Albert and Murchison Falls, a protected natural park in Uganda.

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Murchison Falls in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda, July 12, 2019 (Photo by Travel Local)

Murchison Falls, also called Kabalega Falls, is a waterfall between Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert on the Victoria Nile River in Uganda. At the top of Murchison Falls, the Nile River forces its way through a gap in the rocks, only seven meters (23 feet) wide, and falls 43 m (140 feet), before flowing westward into Lake Albert.

Total plans to drill over 400 wells in the park, extracting around 200,000 barrels of oil per day. A 1,445km (900 mile) long giant pipeline is planned to transport the oil, impacting communities and the environment in Tanzania as well as Uganda.

France’s new Duty of Vigilance law compels Total to meet its human rights obligations concerning this project. Under the law, Total is charged with violating human rights and endangering the environment.

In a corporate statement on September 30, Total responded to the environmental groups, saying.

  • Total’s Vigilance Plan clearly identifies the risks to human rights, fundamental freedoms, human health and safety, and the environment that could result from our activities. Preventive measures specific to these risks are also set out.
  • The Vigilance Plan is included in Total’s Registration Document, which can be downloaded from the Internet.
  • The French Law on Corporate Duty of Care takes a general approach by type of risk. It does not require disclosure of risks specific to individual projects.
  • The Vigilance Plan does not cover management of the risks related to our operations. That management is provided through action plans and procedures in force within Total and other measures taken for individual projects, notably in response to impact assessments. Total E&P Uganda and its partners have implemented measures to prevent the risks identified for the EACOP and Tilenga projects.
  • Total E&P Uganda and its partners have conducted detailed environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs) that in particular cover access to land and water and potential environmental impacts. These assessments led to measures to prevent or mitigate such impacts.
  • The impact assessments were conducted in line with national and international standards, notably those of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which are among the most stringent in the areas of environmental and social impacts. Nearly 70,000 people in Uganda and Tanzania were consulted during the assessments.

The case will be decided in the Nanterre High Court, where a hearing is scheduled to take place on January 8, 2020.

A judge will decide if the corporation should be forced, with potential financial penalties, to review its vigilance plan, acknowledging the true impact of its oil activities on local communities and the environment.

The court could also order Total to undertake urgent measures in order to prevent further human rights violations or environmental damage.

In June 2019 the six NGOs presented the French energy giant with a formal demand to revise its vigilance plan and the implementation of that plan for the oil project in Uganda.

Total rejected the charges after a three-month legal deadline, allowing the complainants to take Total to court. The social and environmental impacts are so dire that they filed proceedings with the “urgent applications” judge.

In addition to denying the charges, Total has failed to change its behavior on the ground in Uganda. Pressure on local communities, that are threatened with eviction, as well as on the NGOs supporting them, has increased. The impacts and risks flagged in this legal case are escalating daily.

Murchison Falls National Park is located in the northwestern part of Uganda. The largest national park in the country, it covers an area of about 4,000 square kilometers. It is inhabited by lions, elephants, crocodiles, hippos, buffaloes, giraffes and chimpanzees and many species of birds.

Diverse groups of people practice their widely varied cultural values and beliefs in the Murchison Falls National Park. The Acholis dominate the northeastern area, Banyoro in the south and the Alur live in the northwestern part.

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Local dancers perform at a cultural event in Murchison Falls National Park (Photo courtesy Murchison Falls National Park)

Thomas Bart, the Survie activist who coordinated the on-site investigation, explains. “Thousands of people are already acutely feeling the dire consequences of the oil project. It’s not only the people, whose homes and land have been stolen, but also the region’s exceptional biodiversity that is under attack.”

“Putting a giant pipeline through these ecosystems will endanger them in the immediate future,” said Bart. “It’s urgent that we put a stop to this. If we consider all the risks linked to the pipeline, we’re talking about tens of thousands of affected people.”

This is the first time that a French transnational corporation is being taken to court under the duty of vigilance law – a groundbreaking law that French civil society spent many years fighting for.

Juliette Renaud, corporate accountability senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth France said, “In addition to the urgent need to put an end to this scandalous project, this unprecedented legal case is also a legitimate sign of recognition that transnational corporations have new and very concrete legal obligations under this law. Corporations can no longer hide behind ‘good intentions.'”

“We hope this legal action will mark a turning point, and the jurisprudence created could serve for many other cases,” said Renaud. “We will therefore defend the letter and the spirit of the law, which is a major step forward in fighting corporate impunity.”

This case is part of a growing global movement for justice. Last week at the United Nations, 90 governments and over 200 civil society organizations participated in ongoing negotiations for a new international binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights.

The French duty of vigilance law and case against Total in Uganda was presented as evidence at the UN, underlining the need to strengthen the jurisdiction of national courts and to create strong international implementation mechanisms, including an international court.

Campaigns already exist to replicate this new French law in Switzerland, UK, Germany and at the European level demanding Rights for People and Rules for Corporations.

Karin Nansen, who chairs Friends of the Earth International, said, “For too long large oil corporations like Total have acted with impunity, trampling over human rights and destroying the environment. But this new Duty of Vigilance law and court case means we have a chance to hold Total, a French transnational corporation, accountable in France for human rights violations and environmental and livelihood destruction in a Southern country. This case is a groundbreaking moment in the global movement to end corporate impunity.”

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