French justice dismisses NGOs opposed to a megaproject in Africa

The Paris court on Tuesday ruled “inadmissible” the demands of NGOs demanding the suspension of a controversial oil pipeline and oil drilling megaproject by TotalEnergies in Uganda and Tanzania, carried out, according to the associations, in disregard for human rights and the environment. The court considers that the associations did not respect the stages of the procedure by presenting at the hearing in December requests and grievances “substantially different” from those which they had reproached TotalEnergies in a formal notice of 2019, starting point of the case.

The two projects at the heart of the matter

Friends of the Earth, Survival and four Ugandan associations, which deny having substantially modified their requests, “have only clarified them and consolidated their arguments with more than 200 documents of supporting evidence”, reacted Juliette Renaud, a Friends of the Earth official contacted by AFP. The associations, which can appeal, “reserve themselves on the follow-up to be given to this decision, in consultation with the affected communities”, she added.

Two inseparable projects are at the heart of this affair: the Tilenga drilling in Uganda, a third of which in the Murchison Falls natural park; and the EACOP project (East African Crude Oil Pipeline), the longest heated oil pipeline in the world (1,500 km), through Tanzania and protected areas. NGOs believe that TotalEnergies does not respect its “duty of vigilance” in these projects, instituted by a pioneering French law of 2017.

This requires multinationals to “prevent serious violations of human rights, human health and safety and the environment” in all their global activities. This law allows associations to send a formal notice to companies that do not comply with it. The latter then have three months to respond and comply, before a possible referral to justice.

A case that requires “in-depth examination”

The associations had decided to bring their summons before the judge in chambers, an emergency procedure. But the court considers that the case exceeds its prerogatives and “requires an in-depth examination (…) within the power of the sole judge on the merits”.

This judgment is the first rendered on the basis of the 2017 law, closely scrutinized by the economic world and by the NGOs involved in the regulation of multinationals which have recently multiplied this type of procedure against large groups. In its decision, the Paris court considers that the “vigilance measures” introduced by this law are “general and without precise contours”, for lack of publication of an expected decree.