NGOs seek climate trial of French oil giant TotalEnergies

Climate activists hold a banner reading "Let's take Total back into our own hands" in front of TotalEnergies' tower in La Defense, Courbevoie, western Paris, on March 28, 2024, to demand the end of fossil fuels use in Europe. (AFP/File)
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Updated 21 May 2024
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NGOs seek climate trial of French oil giant TotalEnergies

  • The complaint was filed at Paris judicial court days before TotalEnergies holds annual shareholders meeting
  • The offenses carry prison sentences ranging between one year to five years and fines of as much as $163,000

PARIS: NGOs filed a criminal complaint against French oil giant TotalEnergies and its top shareholders in Paris on Tuesday, seeking a trial for involuntary manslaughter and other consequences of climate change “chaos.”
The case targets the company’s board, including chief executive Patrick Pouyanne, and major shareholders that backed its climate strategy, including US investment firm BlackRock and Norway’s central bank, Norges Bank.
In a statement, the three NGOs and eight individuals said they accused the group of “deliberately endangering the lives of others, involuntary manslaughter, neglecting to address a disaster, and damaging biodiversity.”
The complaint was filed at the Paris judicial court, which has environmental and health departments, three days before TotalEnergies holds its annual shareholders meeting.
The prosecutor now has three months to decide whether to open a judicial investigation, the NGOs said. If it does not go ahead, the plaintiffs can take their case directly before an investigative judge.
The offenses carry prison sentences ranging between one year to five years and fines of as much as 150,000 euros ($163,000).
“This legal action could set a precedent in the history of climate litigation as it opens the way to holding fossil fuel producers and shareholders responsible before criminal courts for the chaos caused by climate change,” the NGOs said.
The plaintiffs include “victims or survivors of climate-related disasters” in Australia, Belgium, France, Greece, Pakistan, the Philippines and Zimbabwe.
TotalEnergies did not immediately return a request for comment.
Oil and gas companies, other corporations and governments are facing a growing number of legal cases related to the climate crisis worldwide.
TotalEnergies is facing other legal cases in France related to climate change.
Outside the Paris judicial court, the NGOs held a banner reading “climate change kills” and “let’s put shareholders behind bars” — with the “share” in shareholders crossed out and replaced by the “death.”
The latest complaint aims to “recognize the deadly consequences of their decisions, their stubbornness in voting for fossil projects which threaten the stability of the climate and therefore of all living things,” Claire Nouvian, founding director of conservation group Bloom, said at a news conference.
Fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — are the biggest contributors to heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the plaintiffs in the Paris case is Benjamin Van Bunderen Robberechts, a 17-year-old Belgian whose friend Rosa died in flash floods in Belgium at the age of 15 in 2021.
In Paris to file the complaint, he said he had come to “demand justice” against those “who choose profit over human lives and climate.”
In their statement, the plaintiffs said “TotalEnergies has known the direct link between its activities and climate change” since at least 1971.
“TotalEnergies followed a climate skeptic line in order to waste time, delay decision-making and protect its increasing investments in fossil fuels,” they added.
They said they hope to set a legal precedent “whereby opening new fossil fuel projects would be considered criminal.”
While the case was filed on Tuesday, TotalEnergies announced a deepwater project off the coast of Angola, with production set to start in 2028 to extract 70,000 barrels per day.


Russian air strike causes more damage to Ukraine’s power grid

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Russian air strike causes more damage to Ukraine’s power grid

  • The attacks have knocked out half Ukraine’s energy generating capacity since March
  • Ukrainian air force said it shot down five out of nine missiles and all 27 drones launched by Russia over 10 Ukrainian regions
KYIV: Russia launched a new barrage of missiles and drones at Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday, causing “significant” damage to a thermal power plant and maintaining pressure on the electricity grid, Ukrainian officials said.
The attack on energy infrastructure in four regions damaged equipment, wounded seven workers and cut off electricity to more than 218,000 consumers, the energy ministry said.
The attacks have knocked out half Ukraine’s energy generating capacity since March and forced rolling blackouts, Kyiv says. Moscow says energy facilities are a legitimate military target and that some of the strikes were retaliation for Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory.
Officials in Kyiv have for months been appealing to Ukraine’s allies to supply more air defenses against the air strikes carried out by Russia throughout the nearly 28-month-old full-scale invasion.
The Ukrainian air force said it shot down five out of nine missiles and all 27 drones launched by Russia over 10 Ukrainian regions during Thursday’s attack.
Despite the military’s readout, private power company DTEK said one of its thermal power plants suffered significant damage from the drone attack. The strikes, it said, amounted to the seventh large-scale attack on its infrastructure since March 22.
National grid operator Ukrenergo said the attack would lead to an increase in the quantity of scheduled blackouts on Thursday.
The military said the attack mostly targeted eastern Ukraine and in particular the Dnipropetrovsk region.
The region’s governor said five drones and four missiles were shot down over the region. Three men were wounded in the attack, which also damaged seven homes, he said.
Serhiy Popko, head of Kyiv’s military administration, said air defenses shot down all incoming aerial targets on their approach to the capital, and no damage or injuries were reported in the city.
Air defenses also downed four drones over the central region of Vinnytsia, where debris damaged a critical infrastructure object, the regional governor said without identifying it.

‘Nature’s mirror’: Climate change batters Albania’s butterflies

Updated 20 June 2024
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‘Nature’s mirror’: Climate change batters Albania’s butterflies

VLORA: Bright yellow, black, red and blue, Alexanor butterflies once fluttered abundantly on southwestern Albania’s flowery slopes. Now, like many related species, scientists say they are disappearing due to human impacts, including climate change.
Increasingly absent from the picturesque district of Zvernec, the Alexanor is one of 58 of the Balkan country’s 207 butterfly species that researchers say are at risk.
“Sensitive to changes, they are a true mirror of the conditions of the ecosystem in which they live,” said Anila Paparisto, an entomologist at Tirana University.
In Zvernec, Paparisto leads a team of researchers and students working to identify the country’s remaining butterfly species along with those that are now extinct.
Numerous scientific studies have measured the impact of climate change on butterfly populations, though researchers also cite other environmental factors.
They blame a combination of rapid urbanization, pesticides and warming temperatures for the decrease.
“Human activity and climate change have had major impacts on nature,” said biology student Fjona Skenderi, who was helping conduct research in Zvernec.
In the nearby Divjaka Natural Park, Albanian agronomist Altin Hila points to the disappearance of the Giant Peacock Moth and the Plain Tiger as another worrying sign.
“It’s a disaster marked by climatic disruptions, an early spring and excessively high temperatures in January and February,” explained Hila, who is also a passionate collector and oversees a butterfly museum in Divjaka.
“It encouraged the eggs to hatch and the butterfly larvae to grow, but in April the temperatures were too low” for them to survive, he added.


The butterflies’ decline also affects other species.
“It will impact the entire food chain and biodiversity, which is also essential for humans,” Paparisto said.
“When there are fewer butterflies, you expect... the butterfly effect.”
Like large swaths of Albania, coastal areas near Zvernec have become increasingly overrun with resorts and apartment blocks, built with little oversight.
Scientists say the rapid urbanization in the area, along with overfishing and climate change, has also played a part in the dramatic drop in migratory bird populations.
And while some butterfly populations are in decline, other similar species are prospering — to the detriment of the environment.
The arrival of a non-native moth through imports of ornamental plants from China has ravaged more than 80 percent of Albania’s boxwood forests since 2019, according to experts.
“It is very aggressive, it can reproduce three to four times a year, and it is a real misfortune which reduces entire areas to nothing,” said forest engineer Avdulla Diku.
With their distinct neon green and black bodies, the larvae are easily spotted when clinging to the boxwoods’ leaves and stems.
On the road along Lake Ohrid to Pogradec in northwestern Albania, the once vibrant green rows of boxwoods are reduced to husks after being devoured by the moths’ larvae.
“It is a firm reminder of the fragility and subtle balance of the environment in which we live,” said Sylvain Cuvelier, an entomological researcher who co-authored the first Albanian butterfly atlas.
“It is obviously urgent to unite our efforts to find solutions, to rethink in depth our use of natural resources and the way forward for the protection and restoration of our environment.”


North Korea says deal between Putin and Kim requires immediate military assistance in event of war

Updated 20 June 2024
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North Korea says deal between Putin and Kim requires immediate military assistance in event of war

  • Both North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin had described the deal reached Wednesday as a major upgrade of bilateral relations
  • The summit between Kim and Putin came as the US and its allies expressed growing concern over a possible arms arrangement

SEOUL, South Korea: The new agreement between Russia and North Korea reached by their leaders at a Pyongyang summit requires both countries to use all available means to provide immediate military assistance in the event of war, North Korean state media said Thursday.
Both North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin had described the deal reached Wednesday as a major upgrade of bilateral relations, covering security, trade, investment, cultural and humanitarian ties. Outside observers said it could mark the strongest connection between Moscow and Pyongyang since the end of the Cold War.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency on Thursday reported the language of the comprehensive strategic partnership agreement. The agency said Article 4 of the agreement states that if one of the countries gets invaded and is pushed into a state of war, the other must deploy “all means at its disposal without delay” to provide “military and other assistance.” But it also says that such actions must be in accordance with the laws of both countries and Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which recognizes a UN member state’s right to self-defense.
The summit between Kim and Putin came as the US and its allies expressed growing concern over a possible arms arrangement in which Pyongyang provides Moscow with badly needed munitions for its war in Ukraine, in exchange for economic assistance and technology transfers that could enhance the threat posed by Kim’s nuclear weapons and missile program.
Following their summit, Kim said the two countries had a “fiery friendship,” and that the deal was their “strongest-ever treaty,” putting the relationship at the level of an alliance. He vowed full support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Putin called it a “breakthrough document” reflecting shared desires to move relations to a higher level.
North Korea and the former Soviet Union signed a treaty in 1961, which experts say necessitated Moscow’s military intervention if the North came under attack. The deal was discarded after the collapse of the USSR, replaced by one in 2000 that offered weaker security assurances.
A full day after the summit, South Korean officials said they were still interpreting the results, including what Russia’s response might be if the North comes under attack. Analysts were mixed on whether the agreement obligates Russia to an automatic military invention on behalf of the North in war situations or was carefully worded enough to avoid such a commitment. It also wasn’t immediately clear why the article invokes the UN charter.
“We are currently reviewing the specifics of the treaty signed between Russia and North Korea during President Putin’s visit to North Korea. We will announce our government’s position after we are done,” Lim Soosuk, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said during a briefing.
Still, Lim expressed regret that Moscow and Pyongyang signed the agreement while openly talking about military and technology cooperation that would be in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
“Based on our close analysis and assessment of the results of (Putin’s) visit, including the comprehensive strategic partnership treaty signed between Russia and North Korea, we will work with the international community, including our allies and friends, to take correspondingly stern and decisive measures to any actions that threaten our security,” Lim said.
The deal was made as Putin visited North Korea for the first time in 24 years, a visit that showcased their personal and geopolitical ties with Kim hugging Putin twice at the airport, their motorcade rolling past giant Russian flags and Putin portraits, and a welcoming ceremony at Pyongyang’s main square attended by what appeared to be tens of thousands of spectators.
According to KCNA, the agreement also states that Pyongyang and Moscow must not enter into agreements with third parties if they infringe on the “core interests” of another and must not participate in actions that threaten those interests.
KCNA said the agreements require the countries to take steps to prepare joint measures for the purpose of strengthening their defense capabilities to prevent war and protect regional and global peace and security. The agency didn’t specify what those steps are, or whether they would include combined military training and other cooperation.
The agreement also calls for the countries to actively cooperate in efforts to establish a “just and multipolar new world order,” KCNA said, underscoring how the countries are aligning in face of their separate, escalating confrontations with the Untied States.
Kim in recent months has made Russia his priority as he pushes a foreign policy aimed at expanding relations with countries confronting Washington, embracing the idea of a “new Cold War” and trying to display a united front in Putin’s broader conflicts with the West.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are at their highest point in years, with the pace of both Kim’s weapons tests and combined military exercises involving the US, South Korea and Japan intensifying in a tit-for-tat cycle.
The Koreas also have engaged in Cold War-style psychological warfare that involved North Korea dropping tons of trash on the South with balloons, and the South broadcasting anti-North Korean propaganda with its loudspeakers.


Russia obliterates front-line Ukraine towns by retrofitting bombs and expanding its air base network

Updated 20 June 2024
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Russia obliterates front-line Ukraine towns by retrofitting bombs and expanding its air base network

  • The bombing of the Epicenter in Kharkiv killed 19 people, including two children
  • Russia has accelerated its destruction of Ukraine’s front-line cities in 2024 to a scale previously unseen in the war using the glide bombs

KHARKIV, Ukraine: The first shock wave shattered aisles stacked almost to the ceiling with home improvement products. The next Russian bomb streaked down like a comet seconds later, unleashing flames that left the megastore an ashen shell.
A third bomb failed to detonate when it landed behind the Epicenter shopping complex in Kharkiv. Investigators hope it will help them trace the supply chain for the latest generation of retrofitted Russian “glide bombs” that are laying waste to eastern Ukraine. The Soviet-era bombs are adapted on the cheap with imported electronics that allow distant Russian warplanes to launch them at Ukraine.
Other cities that have been devastated by the weapons include Avdiivka, Chasiv Yar and Vovchansk, and Russia has nearly unlimited supplies of the bombs, which are dispatched from airfields just across the border that Ukraine has not been able to hit.
Store manager Oleksandr Lutsenko said the May 25 attack hints at Russia’s aim for Kharkiv: “Their goal is to turn it into a ghost city, to make it so that no one will stay, that there will be nothing to defend, that it will make no sense to defend the city. They want to scare people, but they will not succeed.”
Russia has accelerated its destruction of Ukraine’s front-line cities in 2024 to a scale previously unseen in the war using the glide bombs and an expanding network of airstrips, according to an Associated Press analysis of drone footage, satellite imagery, Ukrainian documents and Russian photos.
The results can be seen in the intensity of recent Russian attacks. It took a year for Russia to obliterate Bakhmut, where the bombs were first used. That was followed by destruction in Avdiivka that took months. Then, only weeks were needed to do the same in Vovchansk and Chasiv Yar, according to images analyzed by AP that showed the smoldering ruins of both cities.
Now, Russia is putting the finishing touches on yet another airstrip less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Ukraine and launching the bombs routinely from multiple bases just inside Russian borders, according to the AP analysis of satellite pictures and photos from a Russian aviation Telegram channel.
The bombing of the Epicenter in Kharkiv killed 19 people, including two children. In all, glide bombs have hit the city more than 50 times this year, according to Spartak Borysenko of the Kharkiv regional prosecutor’s office.
He showed investigation documents to AP that identified at least eight Russian air bases used to launch the attacks, all within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of Ukraine. He said at least one of the munitions had foreign electronics and was made in May. That date suggests Russia is using the bombs rapidly and that it has successfully circumvented sanctions for dual-use items.
Photos on Russian Telegram channels linked to the military show glide bombs being launched three and four at a time. In one launch of four bombs, the AP traced the aircraft’s location to just outside the Russian city of Belgorod, near the air base now under construction. All four bombs in the photo were headed west — with Vovchansk and Kharkiv in their direct line of fire.
At the end of May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia was launching more than 3,000 of the bombs every month, with 3,200 used in May alone.
Oleh Katkov, whose military-oriented site Defense Express first traced the launch location, said hitting air bases is key to slowing the pace of the bombings by forcing Russian planes to launch farther away.
“This doesn’t mean they will completely stop their bombings, but it will become more difficult for them,” Katkov said. “They will be able to make fewer sorties per day.”
For months, Ukrainian officials complained bitterly about restrictions on using Western-supplied weapons against targets in Russia, including the airfields that house Russian bombers. The United States and Germany recently authorized some targets in Russia, but many others remain off-limits.
The newest airfield, just outside Belgorod, has a 2,000-meter (-yard) runway, the AP analysis found. Construction began late summer 2023, during the failed Ukrainian counteroffensive.
A Ukrainian intelligence official, who provided information to AP on condition of anonymity, said his government had been closely following the construction, which did not yet appear complete in a photo taken mid-June.
The official also noted that Belarus provides sanctuary for Russian bombers. A map created by the Ukrainian battlefield analysis site DeepState showed 10 airfields in Belarus, including five just across the border from Ukraine.
In all, the DeepState map shows 51 bases used by Russia within 600 kilometers (370 miles) of Ukrainian-controlled territory, including three in occupied eastern Ukraine, six in the illegally annexed peninsula of Crimea, and 32 in Russia.
“The greatest strategic advantage Russia has over Ukraine is its advantage in the sky,” Zelensky said last week. “This is missile and bomb terror that helps Russian troops advance on the ground.”
Russia launches up to 100 guided bombs daily, Zelensky said. Besides missiles and drones, which Russia already routinely uses for attacks, the bombs cause “an insanely destructive pressure.”
The base material for the glide bombs comes from hundreds of thousands of Soviet-era unguided bombs, which are then retrofitted with retractable fins and guidance systems to carry 500 to 3,000 kilograms (1,100 to 6,600 pounds) of explosives. The upgrade costs around $20,000 per bomb, according to the Center for European Policy Analysis, and the bombs can be launched up to 65 kilometers (40 miles) from their targets — outside the range of Ukraine’s regular air defense systems.
The bombs are similar in concept to the American Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, missiles, which have had their GPS systems successfully jammed by Russian forces in Ukraine.
Because Russia does not have the strength to occupy eastern cities such as Kharkiv, bombing is their preferred option, said Nico Lange, an analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis.
“From their point of view, the strategy seems to be to terrorize the cities enough that people will leave,” Lange said.
Back at the Epicenter home improvement store, surveillance footage taken just before the explosion showed salesperson Nina Korsunova walking across the floor toward the aisle that she was staffing that day. Then there was a blinding flash, and the camera cut out.
Korsunova curled into the fetal position as a display crashed on top of her. She uncovered her eyes just in time to see the second bomb streak inside. With her eardrums blown out, she could hear nothing and saw not a single sign of life.
“I thought I was alone and that they had abandoned me there. It gave me the strength to climb out,” she said. She crawled over piles of shattered lamps, and cables snarled her legs as she climbed through debris from the electrical supply aisle.
Two weeks later, the skeleton of the building reeked of a disorienting combination of scorched metal and laundry detergent that spilled from melted jugs in the cleaning products aisle.
Neither Korsunova nor the store manager have any plans to leave their hometown.
“It didn’t break me,” she said. “I will remain in Kharkiv. This is my home.”


Swedish court to rule on top Syrian officer war crimes charges

Updated 20 June 2024
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Swedish court to rule on top Syrian officer war crimes charges

  • The trial is against one of the highest-ranking Syrian military officials to be tried in Europe,

Stockholm: A Stockholm court will Thursday deliver its verdict in a trial against one of the highest-ranking Syrian military officials to be tried in Europe, accused of war crimes during Syria's civil war.
Former brigadier general Mohammed Hamo, 65, who lives in Sweden, is accused of "aiding and abetting" war crimes. If convicted, he could get a life sentence.
The Stockholm district court is expected to announce its verdict at 11:00 am (0900 GMT).
The war between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and armed opposition groups, including Islamic State, erupted after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.
It has killed more than half a million people, displaced millions, and ravaged Syria's economy and infrastructure.
According to the charges, Hamo contributed -- through "advice and action" -- to the Syrian army's warfare, which "systematically included attacks carried out in violation of the principles of distinction, caution and proportionality".
"The warfare was thus indiscriminate," prosecutor Karolina Wieslander told the court when the trial opened in April.
Wieslander said the Syrian army's "widespread air and ground attacks" caused damage "at a scale that was disproportionate in view of the concrete and immediate general military advantages that could be expected to be achieved".
In his role as brigadier general and head of an armament division, Hamo allegedly helped coordinate the supply of arms and ammunition to units.
Hamo's lawyer, Mari Kilman, told the court her client denied criminal responsibility and had not shown "intent" to contribute to "indiscriminate warfare" by others.
Kilman said the officer could not be held liable for the actions "as he had acted in a military context and had to follow orders."
Aida Samani, senior legal advisor at rights group Civil Rights Defenders -- which has been monitoring the trial -- told AFP that "strong evidence" had been presented at the trial.
"We will now see what the court makes of that information and evidence," Samani said.
"What is noteworthy about this case is that this is the first trial concerning the Syrian military's warfare. That is, how the warfare was carried out," she said.
No European court has previously dealt with this issue and the impact on civilian lives and infrastructure, she added.
Hamo is the highest-ranking military official to go on trial in Europe in person, though other countries have tried to bring charges against more senior members.
In March, Swiss prosecutors charged Rifaat al-Assad, an uncle of President Bashar al-Assad, with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
However, it remains unlikely Rifaat al-Assad -- who recently returned to Syria after 37 years in exile -- will show up for the trial, for which a date has yet to be set.
Swiss law allows for trials in absentia under certain conditions.
In November, France issued an international arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad, accusing him of complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes over chemical attacks in 2013.
Three other international warrants were also issued for the arrests of Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher, the de-facto chief of the army's elite Fourth Division, and two generals.
In May, a Paris court also ordered life prison sentences for three top Syrian security officials for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The accused -- Ali Mamlouk, former head of the National Security Bureau; Jamil Hassan, former director of the Air Force intelligence service; and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, former head of investigations -- were all absent, but there are international warrants for their arrest.
In January 2022, a German court sentenced former colonel Anwar Raslan to life in jail for crimes against humanity. That was the first international trial over state-sponsored torture in Syria and was hailed by victims as a victory for justice.