French judges tilt in favour of Total in landmark ruling

This is the first time a French multinational was taken to court under France’s 2017 ‘Corporate Duty of Vigilance’ law.

The logo of French oil giant Tota
The lawsuit states that Total did not provide sufficient detail in its report on how it planned to cut its emissions at its Tilenga site in Uganda [File: Regis Duvignau/Reuters]

Paris, France – A French court ruled on Thursday that it didn’t have the right to hear a complaint against French oil giant Total. The decision comes as a blow to the French and Ugandan rights organisations – including Friends of the Earth – that filed a lawsuit against Total in June.

In their legal claim, the organisations state that the multinational company failed to come up with a vigilance plan to address the human and environmental impact of its operations at its Tilenga site in Uganda, as required by French law.

The three judges who  reviewed the case sided with Total and ruled that their court did not have the “competence” to make a decision, which should instead be pursued by a commercial court, which activists see as an almost certain win for Total.

“[In a commercial court] you have judges from the corporate world judging other corporations, so usually that means they side with the companies,” Juliette Renaud, a spokesperson for the French chapter of Friends of the Earth, told Al Jazeera.

Renaud added that there would almost certainly be an appeal pending the commercial court’s final ruling. “It’s just the beginning,” she said. “We will continue to support the people impacted by this project and Uganda and we will fight this fight until the end.”

Total did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the ruling.

According to the rights groups, Total intimidated local farmers into signing compensation agreements and forced them off their land before they received any money. Rights groups also say the oil giant failed to take appropriate measures to minimise its environmental impact in the region.

Total says 5,000 people have been displaced, but the groups say around 50,000 could be affected by the project.

In December, two Ugandan witnesses who testified against Total in France said they returned home fearing for their lives. Fred Mwesigwa, a displaced farmer, said unknown men locked him into his house after making two attempted break-ins. Jealousy Mugisha, a local community leader, was arrested and questioned for nine hours upon his arrival at the Kampala airport. Both men had to be moved to undisclosed locations due to safety concerns.

First test for ‘duty of vigilance’ law

The Tilenga lawsuit marks the first time a French multinational corporation is being taken to court under the country’s 2017 “Corporate Duty of Vigilance” law, which states that large companies must come up with vigilance plans to minimise the impact of their activities on local communities and the environment. While international rights groups praised the law’s passing, many see this case as providing the first real test as to whether or not it will be applied.

Thomas Bart, an activist with the France-based nongovernmental organisation (NGO) Survie, told Al Jazeera that Thursday’s ruling sent a signal that multinational companies would fail to be held accountable.

“It’s incredibly disappointing,” Bart said. “The judges didn’t take into account the human and environmental risks that caused this lawsuit in the first place.”

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.

“The French Law on Corporate Duty of Care takes a general approach by type of risk,” the statement reads. “It does not require disclosure of risks specific to individual projects.”

On Tuesday, 14 French towns and several NGOs filed a separate landmark lawsuit against Total as part of an effort to get the company to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

The second suit also references the duty of vigilance law, stating that Total didn’t provide enough detail in its report about how it planned to cut its emissions. This suit marks the first climate change case brought against a multinational company in France. According to the filing, Total represents around one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If a judge rules the oil giant’s activities unsatisfactory, it could mark a broader shift in environmental accountability for multinationals around the world.

Source: Al Jazeera