France: towards a historic vote to efficiently prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide?

Press release
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André ALLIOT via Wikimedia Commons

The draft Law on the Orientation and Programming of the Justice System 2023-2027 will be debated in public session at the French National Assembly starting on 3 July. This will include a debate on several of the remaining restrictions on the universal jurisdiction of French justice, which could finally be lifted. It is indeed time for France to adapt its legislative framework so as to be able to prosecute and judge the perpetrators of international crimes, as soon as they are present on French soil, in line with the long-standing demands of NGOs and victims’ associations.

Paris, 29 June 2023. An amendment to this bill has been tabled in the Senate by Senator Jean-Pierre Sueur, reopening the debate on the conditions under which universal jurisdiction can be exercised.

Several recent cases have demonstrated France’s difficulty in carrying certain emblematic legal proceedings to a successful conclusion, due to the presence of highly restrictive conditions in French law. We are therefore asking members of Parliament to remove the locks restricting the prosecution of international criminals,” declared Patrick Baudouin, Co-President of the French Coalition for the ICC (CFCPI) and President of the LDH.

Several parliamentary groups, including the Renaissance and allied groups, have declared themselves in favour of tabling amendments aimed at eliminating two of the conditions present in the law: double criminality and habitual residence on French territory, by replacing it with a simple presence requirement. These conditions, which have long been denounced by all the civil society organisations involved in the fight against impunity for the most serious crimes, greatly hamper the effective prosecution of those responsible for international crimes.

However, the government’s position remains uncertain, giving rise to fears that it will continue to oppose the removal of the habitual residence condition, or even that it will institute an even more restrictive regime than the one currently in place, by defining the scope of this legal criteria.

In light of recent events, it would be incomprehensible if the government were once again to oppose the removal of the locks on the jurisdiction of French courts to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide,” said Clémence Bectarte, Co-President of CFCPI and lawyer of FIDH.

The condition of habitual residence is not required for other international crimes such as torture or enforced disappearance, for which the mere presence of the individual on French territory at the time of prosecution is sufficient to establish the jurisdiction of French courts.

This discrepancy in treatment is incomprehensible, and allows alleged perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide to remain on French territory with complete impunity,” said Jeanne Sulzer, head of the International Justice Committee at Amnesty International France.

However, if French judges are to exercise universal jurisdiction effectively and efficiently, the two other restrictions present in the law must also be removed: the prosecutorial discretion and the subsidiarity of prosecutions, which requires the public prosecutor to check, before opening an investigation, that no proceedings have been initiated by the ICC or another international or national jurisdiction.

This procedural requirement, which is contrary to the Rome Statute, places a burden on the public prosecutor’s office that is incompatible with the responsiveness that is sometimes needed to avoid the risk of absconding and the loss of evidence. Combined, these last two locks seriously compromise the ability of French Justice to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of these crimes” declared Brigitte Jolivet of the Syndicat de la magistrature.

As the war in Ukraine rages on at Europe’s doorstep, and as international crimes continue to be perpetrated in many contemporary situations, the necessity of combating impunity for these crimes appears clearer than ever. It is therefore urgent for France to live up to its commitments on the international stage, by giving its justice system the resources it needs to effectively prosecute and judge the most serious crimes, under a universal jurisdiction law worthy of its name.

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