French company Total faces legal action for human rights violations committed by UAE forces in Yemen’s Balhaf gas complex

February 23, 2023

MENA Rights Group is taking the French energy giant TotalEnergies to court for failing to comply with its due diligence obligation in relation to human rights abuses committed in a gas liquefaction plant in Balhaf, Yemen. The lawsuit seeks reparations for two torture survivors and demands the inclusion of the Balhaf site in Total’s Vigilance Plan to prevent the recurrence of abuses.
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The Balhaf gas liquefaction plant © courtesy of IUCN Independent Review Panel.

MENA Rights Group has filed a lawsuit before the Paris Court of Justice against French energy company TotalEnergies, acting on behalf of two individuals who were subjected to secret detention and torture by Emirati forces on the Yemeni Balhaf gas liquefaction plant in 2018 and 2019.

In the subpoena, the complainants argue that TotalEnergies has failed to implement its obligations under the 2017 French law on corporate duty of vigilance. The law requires due diligence by large companies to identify risks and prevent human rights violations, while providing civil liability and a redress mechanism.

“Total must take responsibility for the violations committed by UAE forces in Balhaf,” said Alexis Thiry, MENA Rights Group’s Legal Advisor. “It is disappointing to see that since the law on the corporate duty of vigilance was passed in 2017, and despite being informed of gross human rights abuses on the site on multiple occasions, including after several NGOs published a report in 2019, detailing several accounts of arbitrary detention, torture and denial of medical care by Emirati forces, Total has continued to exclude Balhaf in its Vigilance Plan.”

The Balhaf gas plant, located in the Shabwah Governorate in Southern Yemen, is operated by Yemen LNG, a natural gas liquefaction company whose biggest shareholder is TotalEnergies, having a 39.6% interest. The spread of the conflict in Yemen and growing insecurity around the Balhaf site led Yemen LNG to stop production. In March 2017, the Yemeni government requisitioned the plant and the site was taken over by Emirati armed forces, which then set up a base from where they could launch counterterrorism operations across the governorate.

Recurring human rights violations by Emirati forces have been reported at the Balhaf since then, including by NGOs and the media. In July 2019, the UN Human Rights Council’s Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen identified the site as part of a larger network of detention facilities in Southern Yemen where severe human rights abuses were committed. These include enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture.

Both men, whose testimonies were collected by MENA Rights Group, suffered such abuses. The first was arrested in May 2018 and held in Balhaf for several weeks, during which he was subjected to torture and other rights violations. He was later transferred to other secret detention facilities and eventually released. The second was arrested in June 2019 and held in Balhaf for several months, during which he was subjected to severe acts of torture. He was transferred to other detention facilities and released in 2021.

The subpoena requests the Paris Court of Justice to grant both individuals their right to reparations from TotalEnergies due to the firm’s failure to comply with its obligations under the 2017 Due Diligence Law. In addition, the complainants call on TotalEnergies to include the Balhaf site in its upcoming vigilance plans and take the necessary steps to prevent the recurrence of  human rights abuses.

In 2022, MENA Rights Group sent a formal notice to TotalEnergies detailing the abuses in Balhaf. In response, the French energy giant argued that it was not bound by such due diligence obligations regarding the activities in Balhaf, because TotalEnergies does not control the site operator Yemen LNG.

MENA Rights Group counters that the activities of Yemen LNG satisfy the due diligence obligations incumbent on TotalEnergies by virtue of their established commercial relationship, and the Balhaf site’s production and exportation of liquified natural gas.

“TotalEnergies has [for the second time] been summoned on the basis of the French law on due diligence, this time for the activities of its subsidiary Yemen LNG,” said Louis Cofflard, the lawyer acting on behalf of MENA Rights Group and the two victims. “This new case clearly illustrates the multinational’s strategy of disclaiming legal responsibility when serious human rights violations are revealed and linked to the activities or infrastructure of its subsidiaries.”

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