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Statutory limitations for war crimes

Published on December 14, 2010
Reply by Henri de Raincourt, Minister responsible for Cooperation, to a question in the National Assembly

Paris, December 9, 2010

Mr Deputy, you’ve drawn the government’s attention to Article 7 of the Act of 9 August 2010. You’re not unaware of the decisive role our country played in the negotiation of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, or France’s contribution to the functioning of that jurisdiction.

In the case of war crimes, the rule of the non-applicability of statutory limitations was not retained, for reasons of a legal nature and considerations of appropriateness. In terms of the law, the time limit for prosecuting offences reflects a constitutional requirement and only crimes against humanity have no statute of limitations. In terms of appropriateness, the non-applicability of statutory limitations to war crimes would have the effect of trivializing the category of crimes against humanity by putting them under the same legal framework.

That’s why the predecessors of the current Keeper of the Seals recalled on several occasions that the non-applicability of statutory limitations must remain an exceptional rule, limited to crimes against humanity. M. Badinter said, during the parliamentary debates on the Act of 22 July 1996 aimed at strengthening the fight against terrorism, that “the non-applicability of statutory limitations arose from our refusal to accept with a clear conscience that the perpetrators of crimes which deny humanity might remain unpunished after decades. The absence of a time limit for prosecution must remain absolutely exceptional. It must be limited to crimes against humanity and not extended.”

Moreover, the first of the 17 recommendations of the recent Senate report entitled “For a modern and coherent right of prescription” confirms that direction and advocates “preserving the exceptional nature in French law of non-applicability of statutory limitations, reserved for crimes against humanity”.

Finally, even if the rule of the non-applicability of statutory limitations had been adopted for war crimes in the law of 9 August 2010, it could not in any case have a retroactive effect or enable the prosecution of the terrible actions you’ve recalled. Before the 2010 law, the statute of limitations was 10 years. That’s why Klaus Barbie was discharged for the actions, constituting war crimes, committed against Jean Moulin and was only sentenced for crimes against humanity, in particular the deportation of the children of Izieu.

The statute of limitations of the actions perpetrated in Oradour or other localities, like Maillé, had expired under French law as applicable before the adoption of the Act of 9 August 2010. This Act consequently changed nothing in the legal framework for those actions or any other war crime. Quite the contrary: it increased the statute of limitations for them from 10 to 30 years, thus significantly increasing the chances of prosecution of those kinds of crime./.

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