Daily Press Briefing

Statements made by
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson
(excerpts)

(Paris, October 30, 2007)

[Please note that only the original French text issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs may be considered official.]

CHAD/L’ARCHE DE ZOÉ

I would like to update you on the situation. First let me remind you that the Foreign and European Ministry is fully mobilized.

Bernard Kouchner is currently on an important trip to Asia—he is in Bangkok today and will be in Beijing tomorrow. He has established a crisis unit that has been meeting every day since Friday. He is in continuous phone contact with Rama Yade, whom he has asked to direct the crisis unit’s operations.

Ms. Yade received the NGOs yesterday. Today, the head of the Department of French Nationals Abroad will receive associations in charge of adoption, and Ms. Yade said she would be ready to meet in the coming days with the families of our compatriots who are being held in Chad.

On the ground, there is the same mobilization. We’ve sent reinforcements to our ambassador and our consul; three and soon four, including two employees of the Department of French Nationals Abroad, one of my collaborators to establish contact with the journalists and to help them in their work, and a humanitarian services official.

Our consul, who has consular protection, has visited our compatriots and other European nationals—you know that Spaniards and a Belgian are also being held—several times. A French doctor visits them daily, and we are providing material and financial assistance to meet their daily needs and to help them with legal proceedings. As part of its exercise of consular protection, our post will do everything necessary to provide them with the services of an attorney.

An update on the legal situation, given that dispatches indicate they’ve been charged: Here too, a little bit of clarification is needed. We understand the public prosecutor has made accusations. Currently, no decisions have been taken with respect to charges. An investigating judge will be in charge of the case, and it will be up to him to establish charges.

Finally, one last point—one that is particularly important for us all—the situation of the journalists. There are indeed journalists among the French who were arrested. We have intervened with Chad’s authorities to underscore their status as journalists and to ask them to take that into account in the decisions that will be made. President Deby let us know that he has received this message.

Q - Are you going to request the extradition of our citizens?

For now, we are waiting to see what decision is taken by Chad’s justice system. The question is therefore premature. France and Chad have a mutual legal assistance agreement, and we are indeed counting on full legal cooperation.

Q - If a French judge should charge the people who are being investigated on more or less similar charges in Chad, they would be charged twice. How do you sort that out? Second, are the journalists also about to be charged? Has the French prosecutor recommended charging the journalists?

Those are two different things, you shouldn’t confuse them. The proceedings in Chad, as we’ve just mentioned, involve nine French individuals, while in France, an investigation has been opened into the association. But I invite you to consult the Justice Ministry for details on legal proceedings.

Q - Do you have any information on the children’s nationalities? Are they Sudanese or Chadian?

According to initial reports—and that’s why I warn you against any hasty analyses—there are many Chadian children. Likewise, many allegedly aren’t orphans.

We are awaiting the completion of the identification process currently underway in Chad by the Chadian authorities and international humanitarian agencies.

Q - Will this have any repercussions on the European force to be deployed in Chad and the Central African Republic?

There is no connection between the two. Work on the establishment of this force is continuing. There are no changes concerning its deployment, as President Deby has said.

Q - Can you say a bit more about your relations with Chad? We get the impression that there’s a small contradiction. Ms. Yade says there’s good cooperation with Chad and everything is going very smoothly. But you haven’t managed to win the journalists’ release. We get the feeling that you’re saying everything is going fine, but in Chad, they seem very upset by this case and we don’t get the feeling they want to cooperate with you.

We have very good bilateral relations […]. This is a legal case, a very painful one that involves 103 children who are in a tragic situation. We are cooperating with Chad’s authorities to shed all possible light on this operation. We still have to establish the children’s nationalities, their civil status… the unfolding of the operation isn’t clear either. The legal process is under way. Don’t confuse this legal case with political relations between our countries, which are absolutely excellent. The two things are entirely separate.

As for the journalists, the question has been raised with the Chadians. President Deby has led us to understand that he was fully aware of the particular nature of the journalists’ activities. Let us therefore not prejudge the decisions that will be taken. For now, we are holding calm discussions with the Chadian authorities. We feel we are being well understood on this point in particular.

Q - What is France’s position? Is this trafficking or a humanitarian operation? We still aren’t too clear on this.

It will be up to the judge to qualify this operation. When we received representatives from L’Arche de Zoé, we were unaware that it was acting in Chad through another association with a different name. We don’t monitor all the activities of associations and NGOs. L’Arche de Zoé’s representatives had told us about their project without informing us of this particular operation. Initially, the association was talking about adoption. We warned it—our public communiqués prove this—because there are specific rules governing international adoptions. We also had contacts with families who questioned us about these projects. We told them they seemed both illegal—because it’s impossible to adopt a child from Sudan, the country doesn’t authorize international adoption—and irresponsible. You don’t uproot children with no guarantees of the legal, social, health, and psychological conditions in which such an operation will be carried out for the children.

Nevertheless, L’Arche de Zoé carried out its project without any kind of transparency—on the ground, the Chadians’ impression was that this was a health evacuation. “Children Rescue,” the name of the association on the ground, offered psychosocial support. Its activity had nothing to do with the project that L’Arche de Zoé had spoken to us about.

Our position was unwavering. We continue to think that this operation should not have taken place. We are now waiting for clarification—among other things, on the connections between the two associations. That’s why the matter has been referred to the courts.

As for the journalists, we are committed to their right to freely exercise their profession. That’s what we told the Chadians, explaining that they could absolutely not treat journalists who are exercising their profession the same way as those who were conducting this operation […]. That said, we have decided to provide all our nationals with the necessary assistance.

Q - Are there specific criteria for NGOs working in sensitive conflict zones such as Darfur?

Humanitarian NGOs work on behalf of children, refugees and displaced people. They are performing absolutely extraordinary work on the ground. Most have a charter of proper conduct. We support all humanitarian operations helping the children of Darfur. Nevertheless, in the specific case of L’Arche de Zoé, the objective was adoption. We tried to dissuade them, explaining what a bad idea their project was, that it was illegal and that they shouldn’t carry out this operation, which is far from the principles that should guide a humanitarian operation.

Q - Maybe there was a lack of transparency. But there was also a lack of vigilance, because the members of the association spent something like six weeks in Chad, if we can believe the accounts we’ve heard of the events. They weren’t in hiding. They entered under their own name. Some of them traveled in French military vehicles. How can it be that people who are on the ground whose intentions you criticize—perfectly well known to your services as they had been summoned to the Quai d’Orsay—and who are not traveling around incognito, apart from the different name of their association—how can you explain that for six weeks, all these trips and activities went unnoticed?

As I said, they presented themselves as Children Rescue and claimed to be acting as part of a humanitarian project to provide psychosocial support on the ground. At no time, on the ground, did they refer to the operation they had originally spoken of in Paris. As for more specific monitoring, we are not a police state, we don’t monitor everyone’s movements.

How can one be suspicious of the good faith of an organization on the ground, acting under another name, when the members of the association come to a country where people are in a difficult situation, saying they are there to carry out humanitarian actions in support of children? In this case, there was a real problem of transparency and that’s why we weren’t able to do everything that many would have expected of us.

Are the six Spanish people and the Belgian facing the same charges as the nine French people? (…) Who alerted the Chadians that this wasn’t simply a police check?

With regard to the Spanish individuals and the Belgian pilot, I refer you to what I've said: we don’t have a decision from the investigating magistrate so I can’t tell you what the charges will be. For the time being, we’re waiting for the decision.

With regard to your second question, a distinction needs to be made between the activities of the association in general and this particular operation concerning the 103 children. When we met the members of the association, we warned them. When at the beginning of last week we had calls from families telling us they were concerned because their checks had been debited, we informed Chad’s authorities that we were very worried about the charity’s projects in general.

Was this information forwarded from government to government?

With regard to relations between the Justice Ministries, I refer you to the Justice Ministry. Also regarding the arrests, I must refer you to Chad’s authorities. It is through them that we learned of the arrest of the nine French nationals. In mid-October information reached us from the association that they intended to continue their activities even though it wasn’t going to be adoption. The families too seemed to understand that they weren’t going to be adopting. But one had to consider above all the children’s legal and social situation. We asked our diplomatic post to bring it to UNHCR’s attention. I’m going back to specific dates: in mid October our embassy conveyed our information to the Chad authorities. On October 23 we warned the Chad police because there’d been calls suggesting that the association was intent on pursuing its plans, without our knowing details of the current operation. On October 25 the nine French people and the Spanish individuals accompanying the 103 children were arrested. That’s all that can be said at this point.

Were the children arrested in the aircraft?

The convoy was en route to the airport at Abéché after the curfew. According to our information, they hadn’t yet reached the airport.

Is the aircraft still on the ground?

Probably.

What can you tell people who are frustrated by the slowness of international government action and who, looking back and seeing the major massacres in the past, feel obliged to intervene in order to prevent these same events from happening again?

We understand this impatience. But the international community is active. France is active. It is at France’s initiative that a UN-mandated operation led by Europe, EUFOR, is going to be carried out with the aim of making the camps for the displaced and refugees safe. There is strong political impetus to deploy forces on the ground as quickly as possible so they can help the refugees and the displaced, and try to remedy these tragic situations you’re describing. That is why I salute the activities of all these aid associations which are doing an absolutely great job in the field, especially helping children. From this point of view, I repeat, when Arche de Zoé told us it wanted to help children in Darfur, we understood its intention perfectly well. But it is essential to help in a responsible way, and avoid creating tragic and inextricable situations.

Do you know why the aircraft landed at Abéché?

The airport at Abéché is under the control of the Chad authorities. You’ll have to ask them about the permission for the aircraft to land at Abéché.

x x x

Communiqué later in the day

Our Ambassador, who is in touch with the Prosecutor, has just told us that the investigating magistrate in Abéché, to whom the list of offences had been forwarded, has now decided to charge the 16 people in custody. The president of the Court of Appeals in Abéché has however asked for the trial to be removed to N’djamena. We must now wait for the decision that will be taken concerning that request. If it is moved, a new investigating magistrate will be appointed who could, if he wishes, legally qualify the offences again.

Embassy of France, October 30, 2007