France to set up judicial unit to investigate genocide, war crimes

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; 1:39 PM

PARIS -- The French government announced Wednesday that it will set up a special judicial unit to investigate and bring charges against people accused of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity in France or abroad.

The move, part of a broader legal reform, is designed not to change French war crimes law but to move more rapidly through the complicated international procedure that surrounds such cases when they are brought under existing legislation, according to Guillaume Didier, the Justice Ministry spokesman.

As a result, the shift is unlikely to create the kind of tension that has arisen recently between Israel and Britain, where former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and a group of Israeli military officers have reconsidered visits because of the danger they might be arrested on suspicion of war crimes under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act that covers such crimes anywhere in the world.

Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, has said that the British courts, acting on complaints brought by Palestinians and their sympathizers, have created "an impossible situation" that risks damaging British-Israeli ties. The foreign secretary, David Miliband, has announced that the government is looking for ways to change the legislation that, as it stands, gives the courts universal jurisdiction in such cases.

The suits brought in Britain involve Israel's attacks on Gaza in December 2008, when more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed.

Unlike British law, legislation in France allows prosecution for crimes committed outside France but requires some connection between France and the alleged crime, such as involvement of a French citizen or the presence of those accused on French soil. A number of people exiled in France have been accused of involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, for instance, and French-resident relatives of people allegedly tortured in Tunisia have brought charges against authorities of that North African country.

"As the homeland of human rights, France will never be a sanctuary for the authors of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Justice Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said in a joint statement published in Le Monde newspaper.

But bringing legal action against those accused of such crimes frequently surpasses the ability of French courts to assemble cases and marshal the evidence required for conviction, they said. "The complexity of the cases inevitably slows procedure," they added. "The growth in the number of pending cases, notably concerning more than 15 Rwandans awaiting judgment, moves us to act quickly."

Didier said the new unit will include specialists with historical knowledge of the issues, such as the ethnically oriented Hutu attacks on Rwanda's Tutsis in 1994, and linguists able to gather testimony more quickly. The specialists will "devote themselves full-time to these kinds of cases," he said, with the hope of breaking up the logjams cited by Kouchner and Alliot-Marie in the Rwanda cases.

"People suspected of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity must be judged," they said. "They will be. France solemnly enrolls in the struggle against impunity. Only justice will allow everybody to turn the page, finally bringing out the truth."

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