LONDON: Climate change campaigners targeted the UK headquarters of oil giant TotalEnergies with paint Tuesday, protesting the French firm’s alleged human rights violations in the construction of a contentious oil pipeline in Uganda. Supporters of the Just Stop Oil activist organization sprayed with black paint the interior lobby of the company’s headquarters in London’s Canary Wharf district, while others daubed orange paint on its exterior, the protest group said.

Dozens of students from a pressure group opposed to the building of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) also massed outside the building during the stunt to show support, it added. London’s Metropolitan police said officers had arrested 27 people “for a combination of suspicion of criminal damage and aggravated trespass”.

TotalEnergies is the largest shareholder in the controversial east African venture, which is set to carry crude oil to the Tanzanian coast through several Ugandan protected nature reserves. Communities in the region claim the energy firm and other EACOP backers have caused serious harm to their rights to land and food in building the 1,500-kilometre pipeline. Critics have also called the project a “carbon bomb” which would release over 379 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Also on Tuesday in France, a group of Ugandan citizens and aid groups, joined by French aid organizations, filed a lawsuit in a Paris court against TotalEnergies for damages over the alleged human rights violations. Just Stop Oil wants the UK and other governments to end all new oil and gas exploration and has promised not to let up in its high-profile protests until it does so. The group has repeatedly hit the headlines with its direct-action stunts, such as disrupting sporting events and targeting valuable works of art, to publicize their cause.

But some of their antics, in particular those most impacting people’s everyday lives, have prompted a public backlash, and appear to be increasingly dividing environmental campaigners and their financial backers. Trevor Neilson, a former funder of the organization and other direct action climate change groups, recently told the Sunday Times that they should end their disruptive tactics because they were “not accomplishing anything”. “It’s just performative,” he told the newspaper. “It’s not accomplishing anything. I absolutely believe that it has now become counterproductive.”


TotalEnergies sued

In another development, twenty-six Ugandans on Tuesday sued French oil giant TotalEnergies in Paris for reparations over alleged human rights violations at its massive megaprojects in the country. Joined by five Ugandan and French aid groups, people from the affected communities say the energy firm caused “serious harm”, especially to their rights to land and food. At the heart of their complaint at the Paris court are two vast TotalEnergies developments: the Tilenga exploration of 419 oil wells, one-third of them in the Uganda’s largest national park of Murchison Falls, and EACOP, a 1,500-kilometre pipeline bringing crude oil to the Tanzanian coast through several protected nature reserves.

People affected by the work “have been deprived of free use of their land for three or four years, in violation of their property rights”, the associations said in a statement. This “deprived them of their means of subsistence” and led to “serious food shortages” for some families — with only some receiving in-kind compensation while others were offered financial terms “far short” of what was needed. Some villages suffered flooding caused by construction at the Tilenga project’s oil treatment plant, the associations further alleged.

What’s more, “several plaintiffs suffered threats, harassment and arrest simply for daring to criticize oil projects in Uganda and Tanzania and defend the rights of affected communities,” they added. Two activists, Jelousy Mugisha and Fred Mwesigwa, travelled to France for a 2019 case that aimed to require Total to watch out for potential rights violations. “When they returned to Uganda one was arrested at the airport and the other attacked at his home 10 days later,” the NGOs said.

A third, Maxwell Athura, said he faced “threats and intrusions at his home” and was “arbitrarily arrested twice in 2022”. “By falling short in its duty of vigilance, Total caused serious harm to the plaintiffs, especially to their rights to land and food. They are therefore requesting the company be ordered to compensate them,” the statement continued.

The groups say that more than 118,000 people have had their land wholly or partially expropriated because of the two TotalEnergies projects. “It is unacceptable that foreign oil companies continue to make extraordinary profits while communities affected by their projects in Uganda are harassed, displaced, poorly compensated and living in abject poverty on their own land,” said Frank Muramuzi, executive director of Friends of the Earth’s Ugandan branch and local NGO NAPE.

The associations say TotalEnergies should have been aware of potential serious rights violations linked to its Ugandan plans, but the firm “did not act when warned they existed and did not implement corrective measures once the human rights violations occurred”. There had been “no steps addressing population displacements, limits to people’s access to their means of subsistence or threats against human rights defenders in Total’s plans from 2018 to 2023,” they allege. Friends of the Earth and four Ugandan associations failed in a 2019 bid before a French court to force TotalEnergies to halt Tilenga and EACOP. — AFP