France wants to speed up the way it prosecutes genocide and crimes against humanity, creating a special investigative unit in a Paris court as more suspects allegedly linked to Rwanda's genocide are turning up in the country.
Human rights advocates say the French move is welcome, though overdue in a country long criticized for harboring foreign despots and for cushy relations with strongmen in its former African colonies.
Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner announced plans Wednesday to create a special judicial investigative service for crimes against humanity and genocide committed abroad.
The "judicial center" would handle such crimes that involve anyone - French or not - who lives in or travels to France, Justice Ministry spokesman Guillaume Didier said.
"The homeland of human rights, France will never be a sanctuary for those behind genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity," the ministers wrote in a column in the daily Le Monde newspaper.
They are planning to establish the service as part of a legal reform bill to be presented in parliament in the first half of the year.
The ministers wrote that the goal is to speed up judicial treatment of war crimes and genocide cases, which can drag on for years. The unit - a sort of judicial task force - would pool resources and create a one-stop-shop for genocide claims that are currently filed in courts across France.
French investigators of genocide or claims of war crimes abroad face problems because information often is scattered geographically, the ministers said. Many cases are complex and require technical expertise.
The ministers said the proposed investigative section would not seek to compete with the "universal" jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, but would rely on national jurisdictions authorized as part of the 1998 Rome Treaty that created that court, Didier said.
Alain Gautier, president of the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda legal action group, said French judges are now examining 16 separate lawsuits linked to the Rwanda genocide.
In one recent case, the group in November accused Charles Twagira - now a doctor and pastor based in the northeastern city of Rouen - of crimes against humanity and genocide.
"The rising number of pending cases, notably involving more than 15 Rwandans awaiting trial, is prompting us to act quickly," the ministers wrote in the newspaper.
Separately, Rwanda has maintained that French soldiers there bore responsibility for the slaughter of minority Tutsis by Hutu extremists. The Justice Ministry says the new judicial investigative unit would respond to any claims of genocide - whether from inside France or from abroad.
Some other countries have similar structures to the one France has planned, but only a few have won convictions. Denmark and the Netherlands have had special prosecutor's offices that focus on war crimes since 2002; Sweden and Norway have special police units devoted to war crimes.
Spanish courts operate on a doctrine of universal jurisdiction, allowing for particularly grave crimes to be prosecuted in Spain even if the suspected atrocities were allegedly committed elsewhere. The government cut back that court power in October amid complaints from some countries investigated, like China and Israel. Now, such probes require a clear link to Spain.
Famed Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon used the law to have former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet arrested in London in 1998, trying - in vain - to put him on trial in Spain on terrorism, torture and other charges.
For France, which had a vast colonial empire across Africa and retains tight - and at times, controversial - ties to many countries there, the debate over genocide has particular resonance.
France and Rwanda restored diplomatic ties in November, three years after relations were severed when a Paris judge accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame of ordering his predecessor's assassination. The genocide broke out after the previous president, Juvenal Habyarimana, died in a plane crash.
The case still has not been resolved. France insists its justice system is completely independent and the case did not figure in the negotiations leading to restored ties. France grants immunity to serving heads of state like Kagame.
Kouchner leaves Thursday for a three-day African trip starting in Rwanda, his first since the bilateral diplomatic ties were restored.
William Bourdon, a French lawyer specializing in human rights and terrorism cases, said some legal defense teams have been seeking a genocide task force for three years.
He is among critics who say President Nicolas Sarkozy's call in 2006 - before he was elected - for a new era in relations between France and its former African colonies hasn't materialized.
In October, a French court ruled out further investigation into three African heads of state for money laundering linked to their assets in France, saying there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing.
A preliminary probe centering on Gabon's late leader Omar Bongo, the Republic of Congo's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, and President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and their families found luxury cars and other signs of wealth - some paid for in cash.
In France, all genocide cases have been brought by non-governmental groups or individual claimants - never by state prosecutors themselves, said Bourdon.
"There have always been ulterior motives politically," Bourdon said. "There has to be greater transparency, and [those motives] need to disappear."