The first court hearing under the French law on corporate duty of vigilance between Friends of the Earth France, Survie, four Ugandan organizations and the oil giant Total (1) took place on 12 December 2019 at the High Court of Nanterre, in France.
The organizations are suing the oil giant on account of its activities in Uganda. Over two years of investigations have revealed serious violations of and threats to human rights and environmental abuses including land grabbing and intimidation, all in relation to planned drilling in the heart of a protected natural area. The courtroom was packed for the summary hearing which lasted more than two and a half hours. The judgment is expected on 30 January 2020.
Nearly 5,000 people in Uganda have already been forced off their land, without receiving adequate compensation. The objective of this legal action is to prevent violations from continuing and reoccurring for the tens of thousands of other people who are due to be evicted to make way for a large scale oil project and its related infrastructure, of which Total is the main operator.
The organizations have exposed the impact of Total’s activities on the health and livelihoods of local populations and the risks of irreversible damage to the environment and climate.
Two representatives of Ugandan communities traveled to Paris to testify on the impacts of the loss of their land and the harassment and intimidation they have endured.
Jelousy Mugisha, pastor and community leader explains,
“For us, it is impossible to access the courts in Uganda. So I hope that the French justice system will help us. There are tens of thousands of people affected. The impossibility of cultivating our land is manifested through the famine we suffer and through the school dropout rates among our children. We have alerted Total Uganda several times to our plight yet their course has not altered in any shape or form. “
Fred Mwesigwa, a farmer, testifies,
“I attempted in vain to return and farm my land, but Total stopped me. I have been harassed, intimidated, and was even arrested. I simply tried to defend my rights and fight for the survival of my family.”
After questioning the jurisdiction of the High Court and the legal standing of the organizations, Total set out its arguments to weaken the interpretation of the law and try, once again, to escape responsibility. However, this law was born precisely to obligate transnationals’ parent companies to identify and prevent serious human rights and environmental violations, including those committed by their subsidiaries and subcontractors, both in France and abroad.
According to Juliette Renaud, senior campaigner on corporate accountability at Friends of the Earth France,
“Total wanted to challenge the very spirit and objective of the law on the duty of vigilance by arguing that its subsidiary was an autonomous entity, to which it could not give orders ‘like a dog or a child,’ in the words of their lawyer. Yet it has always had the power to do so and now has the duty to do so. We hope that this legal action will bring an end to the violations and prevent an environmental disaster in Uganda, and that the law will simply be properly enforced.”
In their summons, the organizations question whether Total’s vigilance plan complies with the requirements of the law and whether Total’s vigilance measures are sufficient and/or effectively implemented for the two projects Tilenga and EACOP in Uganda.
In court, Total questioned the use of summary proceedings and the urgency of the situation in Uganda. For Thomas Bart, Survie spokesman, who coordinated the field investigation,
“It is appalling to see that for Total, several tens of thousands of people who no longer have access to their land and suffer from hunger is not an emergency. This law must finally ensure that profit maximization ceases to take precedence over human rights.”
After two and a half hours of proceedings, the judges announced that they would issue their decision on the 30 January 2020.
In a devastating development, Jelousy Mugisha was arrested at Kampala airport on his return from France on 14 December. He was detained for nine hours and interrogated about his participation in the court case in France. The complainants denounce this illegal arrest and demand that peoples’ rights be respected and an immediate end to the intimidation of communities affected by the oil project.
Over ten thousand people have already signed the online “See you in Court, Total!” petition supporting the case and the complainants are calling on the international community to join.
For further information:
(1) Friends of the Earth France, Survie, as well as the four Ugandan associations – AFIEGO, CRED, NAPE / Friends of the Earth Uganda and NAVODA – are represented by the lawyers Louis Cofflard, Céline Gagey and Julie Gonidec. The company Total is represented by the lawyers Antonin Lévy and Ophélia Claude.
This was a college panel hearing, or a panel of three judges, the judge for which was the presiding judge of the High Court of Nanterre, Catherine Pautrat.