France’s highest court, the Court of Cassation (CoC), ruled earlier this month to resolve procedural issues in favor of six not-for-profit groups in their lawsuit against oil giant Total Uganda.
In 2019, six French and Ugandan nonprofit civil society organizations (CSOs) brought a lawsuit against Total Uganda. According to an article published by Jurist.org, he CSOs included:
- Friends of the Earth France,
- National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE); and
- Navigators of Development Organization (NAVODA).
The CSOs argued that Total Uganda’s oil projects in Tanzania and Uganda violated France’s new duty of vigilance law, which required the oil giant to prevent human rights violations and environmental harm. The law holds France-based parent companies of transnational corporations responsible for the effect of their actions globally.
The plaintiffs and defendants have been fighting over procedural issues for two years. The plaintiff-CSOs claim their case should have been heard by a civil court, while defendant Total Uganda argued that the case should be evaluated in a commercial court. In January 2020, a Nanterre civil court held that jurisdiction over the legal dispute fell under commercial courts. In October of the same year the decision was affirmed by the Versailles Court of Appeal. In response to that decision, the CSOs appealed to the CoC. The CoC recognized in its recent decision that the CSOs have a right to choose litigation in a civil or a commercial court because they are non-commercial plaintiffs. As a result of the CoC’s decision, the plaintiffs’ case will be heard on the merits in Nanterre’s civil court.
The Total Uganda case is the first of its kind based on France’s law on the duty of vigilance of transnational companies. Unlike commercial courts that draw their legitimacy from knowledge of the business world, lawsuits that are brought under France’s duty of vigilance law address the protection of the planet as well as human rights. As a result, the legal dispute cannot be turned into a purely commercial matter. The decision by the CoC falls in line with a recently adopted law by the French Parliament, which is expected to be enacted into procedural law soon, that gives Paris civil courts jurisdiction over all cases that are based on France’s duty of vigilance law.
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