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Judging War Crimes and Torture

French Justice and International Criminal Tribunals and Commissions (1940-2005)

Yves Beigbeder

Even democracies commit war crimes. France, like other democracies, has not always kept up to the high standards expected from the „homeland of human rights”. Its colonial past shows that what it termed its “civilizing mission” was tainted with military, economic and religious abuses, denounced by a few courageous groups and individuals, and revealed in a few public trials. The Vichy government’s willing participation in Jewish persecution during the German occupation of France was ignored or denied until trials (Barbie, Touvier, Papon) brought to light these unpleasant facts in the 1990s.
France’s participation in the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals was relatively minor but useful. However, its participation in later international tribunals (Ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda) revealed a few conflicts between French politics and the work of these tribunals. France’s participation in the International Criminal Court is also reviewed.
These developments show that even democratic countries, like France but not France alone, can commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and even be accomplices in genocides. Reasons include pressures in exceptional periods of internal and/or external political/military tensions, nationalist policies, lack of judiciary independence, and lack of media exposure to abuses. However, past crimes must be recalled and exposed, particularly if they have been hidden, covered by amnesties, and not judicially punished. They must be visible as part of a country’s history in order to ensure that they are not repeated.

Yves Beigbeder