French court dismisses Uganda lawsuit against TotalEnergies

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A French civil court on Tuesday dismissed a fast-track lawsuit brought by campaigners against energy major TotalEnergies over its oil projects in Uganda and Tanzania, saying the case should be examined in depth in a standard trial.

Under the suit filed in 2019, six French and Ugandan activist groups had accused the company of failing to protect people and the environment from the Tilenga oil development and the $3.5 billion East African Crude Oil Pipeline.

The campaigners wanted the court to order TotalEnergies to halt the east African projects, basing their case on a 2017 “duty of vigilance” French law that requires companies to identify human rights and environmental risks in their global operations and supply chains, and take measures to prevent them.

The Paris civil court dismissed the request, saying that only a judge examining the case more in-depth could assess whether the accusations against TotalEnergies were founded, and then proceed to an audit of operations on the ground.

TotalEnergies in a statement said the court had found that the company had established a so-called vigilance plan “comprising the five items required by the duty of vigilance law, in sufficient detail so as not to be considered purely summary.”

In its ruling, the first based on the 2017 law, the court said that nothing prevented France from enacting laws that govern the overseas activities of companies present in France – a point legal experts said to set an important precedent if applied in the cases going forward.

That’s consistent with a really widespread and growing recognition in the international community that states have an obligation to regulate and take responsibility for the conduct and impacts of companies, within their jurisdiction, operating abroad,” said Nikki Reichert, climate and energy director at the Centre for International Environmental Law in Washington.

TotalEnergies had argued that a French court did not have jurisdiction over the overseas activities of its subsidiary TotalEnergies EP Uganda.

Other French multinationals, including nuclear giant EDF, water supplier Suez, bank BNP Paribas and agri-food firm Danone have been sued under the 2017 law.

Those cases centre on claims as diverse as plastics pollution, working conditions in France and overseas, loans to companies contributing to deforestation, and land clashes with indigenous populations on construction of new projects.

The companies deny wrongdoing.

Friends of the Earth France said they reserved their right to further legal action. The group can refile the suit as a standard trial, rather than the emergency fast-track procedure that was the basis of Tuesday’s ruling.