Geneva, March 24, 2022 – For more than three years, the activities of the French multinational firm Total in Uganda have prevented hundreds of thousands of people from cultivating their land, denying the rights of the communities to work, food, dignity, and life.
The origin of the problem lies in the implantation of two projects by the company. On one hand, the Tilenga project, which consists of the exploitation and drilling of more than 400 wells, including at least 132 in a protected nature reserve, and on the other hand, the construction of the EACOP, the longest heated oil pipeline in the world, which will cross Uganda and Tanzania for 1445 km. The trail of the pipeline is passing through forests, wetlands, mangroves, and is contributing to deforestation, the destruction of biodiversity, and the means of subsistence of local communities, thus contributing to global warming.
However, despite the massive impact of these projects on the Ugandan ecosystem and populations, Total seems to turn a blind eye to the repercussions of its projects and does not comply with its international moral and legal obligations.
In reaction to Total inaction, two French associations (Les Amis de la Terre France and Survie) collaborated with four Ugandan associations (AFIEGO, CRED, NAPE/Friends of the Earth Uganda, and NAVODA) to instruct Total in June 2019 for non-compliance with its legal obligations.
Subsequently, the associations took the company to court in October 2019, based on the new French law on the duty of vigilance.1
As a reminder, this law requires French multinationals to draw up and publish a “ vigilance plan ”, detailing the risks for human rights and the environment identified in their activities, as well as concrete and adequate measures to prevent serious violations of these rights and mitigate the risks involved in their worldwide operations.
Companies must ensure that these measures are effective and implemented in all their activities, including the one carried out through their subsidiaries, subcontractors, and suppliers, and report the results obtained publicly. If a company fails to meet these obligations, it can face prosecution.
What is alleged against Total is that the company did not have effectively identified the risks of serious violations of human rights and the environment, despite adopting a new vigilance plan in 2020. Therefore, if the risks are not precisely identified, it is impossible to put in place effective vigilance measures.2
In January 2020, the French High Court of Nanterre declared itself incompetent to rule on the request made by the French and Ugandan associations, ruling that the case should be delegated to a commercial court. However, the commercial courts are special courts, made up of lay judges elected by the business community. In such a court, the judgment would turn to a clear advantage for the multinational company. Lastly, following a lengthy appeal procedure, the collective of associations finally won the case before the Court of Cassation on December 15, 2021: the substance of the procedure will be judged again before the Nanterre judicial court.3
This ruling signed a prime victory for the Ugandan people. However, the procedure is slow and uncertain. Meanwhile, despite repeated warnings on the threat posed by Total’s activities in Uganda – including those of four UN Special Rapporteurs – the situation remains unchanged. Even worse, the company continues and intensifies its work, causing irreversible damage to the environment and threatening the safety of people who would try to oppose the projects.
Maxwell Atuhura, a Ugandan human rights activist, speaking on behalf of CETIM and Friends of the Earth International, reported the situation during the debate held on Tuesday as part of the 49th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. M. Atuhura testified on the threats, arbitrary arrests, and imprisonment carried out by the Ugandan government, against activists who oppose the projects. Thus, he called on the Council, and through it, the international community, to deploy the necessary mechanisms to remind the French and Ugandan States of their international obligations so that they act to put an end to the flagrant violations of human and environmental rights taking place in Uganda before it is too late.
The case of Total in Uganda shows us that neither international voluntary standards nor national laws are respected to guarantee adequate redress and access to justice. Exchanges of land and the compensation offered are insufficient to enable the displaced people to regain decent living conditions. Voluntary standards are not enough to make big firms such as Total accountable for their inaction. Once again, this reminds us of the need to develop binding legal frameworks to regulate the activities of TNCs and tackle the mechanisms that allow them to escape justice. In that sense, CETIM continues to plead within the UN framework for a international binding treaty that could represent a bulwark against the impunity of these entities, in establishing solid and reliable mechanisms for accountability and access to justice.
2 See note « Total Ouganda, Première action en justice sur le devoir de vigilance des multinationales : où en est-on ? », published by Les Amis de la Terre France et Survie, october 2020, and article « Un cauchemar nommé Total », Amis de la Terre France website, october 2020.
3 December 15, 2021, Court of Cassation, Commercial, Financial and Economic Chamber, appeal no. 21-11.882.