France accused of being war criminals' friend

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The Independent Online
The French-controlled sector of Bosnia has become a haven for war criminals, says the chief prosecutor at the international tribunal at The Hague. Paris is also refusing to allow senior military officers to appear before the tribunal. John Lichfield asks: What is going on?

Even at its most petty and bloody-minded, French foreign policy is generally defended in the French press. Not on this occasion.

In a stinging editorial at the weekend, Le Monde accused the French government of obstructing the war crimes investigations in both Bosnia and Rwanda. France had become an international "outlaw", Le Monde said. It was "working against peace" by compounding the "impunity" of Bosnian war criminals.

Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor for both the Bosnian and Rwandan tribunals, will meet the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, in Paris today. She will be asking two principal questions.

Why, of all the countries involved in Bosnian peace-keeping, is France alone refusing to allow its military officers to testify before the tribunal? And why is France refusing to take any action against the many indicted war criminals - including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic - living in the part of Bosnia under French military control?

In an interview with Le Monde, Ms Arbour accused France of seeking to "limit access to the truth". She hinted that she might ask the UN to take action to oblige France to send senior officers to testify.

Meanwhile, she said, the many indicted war criminals living in the French sector of Bosnia "have, at the present moment, a feeling of complete security".

"The great majority of those indicted, including the most important, are in the French sector. There are enormous opportunities for action in the French sector. And yet we are faced with total inertia. The only conclusion one can draw is that it is deliberate policy."

The obstructive French attitude to the war crimes tribunals - which France voted in the UN to set up - has been apparent for months but never officially admitted until last week. The defence minister, Alain Richard, then made a swingeing attack on the "theatrical justice" of the tribunals. He said he would never allow French officers to testify in The Hague. They would give evidence only in writing.

This policy is, by all accounts, being dictated by the officers themselves. They are said to be wary of the "Anglo-Saxon" form of adversarial litigation and cross-examination practised in The Hague. Whether or not they have something to hide - and French officers and others, were implicated in UN failings before the Srebrenica massacre in 1994 - they fear that they will become de facto defendants.

The French refusal to take action against war criminals in its sector of Bosnia is more puzzling. Le Monde pointed out that the French military had always been pro-Serb and that this might be a partial explanation. Beyond that, the newspaper said, no one - neither in the foreign ministry, nor in the President's or the Prime Minister's entourage - had been willing to defend or explain the policy.