A little forward progress took place in the case against Hissene Habré last week when Senegal finally claimed its courts could try the former Chadian dictator for mass murder and torture committed during his 1982-90 reign. The only is hitch is they’ll need a little money to do so.
The European Union has offered funds, and the two parties will meet soon to begin working out a financial deal. If the long awaited trial gets underway, it will mark the first time an African nation has tried someone for crimes committed in another nation.
The dictator fled to Senegal in 1990 when he was overthrown after eight bloody years in power, and pressure has been mounting for the past several years on Senegal to bring Habré to justice.
In September 2005, Belgium issued an international arrest warrant for the ex-dictator. Defense attorneys for Habré and some African nations bristled that a European nation, much less a former colonial power, would attempt to extradite and try an African for torture. A judge in Senegal claimed Senegalese courts could not rule on the extradition, and President Abdoulaye Wade asked the African Union to find a resolution. A panel of experts for the African Union recommended Habré face trial in one of the 45 African signatories to the International Convention Against Torture rather than a European body.
No doubt, the government of Senegal has largely proved to be a roadblock in this process. In my mind, though, the reluctance of a sitting president to allow jurisdiction of a former head of state is understandable. But barely so. Human rights now plays a stronger role in the international community; foreign governments are willing to pony up for expensive trials; judiciaries scattered around the globe are becoming more professional. These issues, along with the fact that the list of former dictators living elsewhere is growing, justice is finding a way to many of these “untouchables.”
Underlying this issue is the concept of universal jurisdiction. It is an idea that gained judicial footing with the 2002 introduction of the International Criminal Court and the international war crimes tribunals following the crimes against humanity in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. At heart universal jurisdiction claims that courts in one country can prosecute people for crimes and human rights violations that took place in other countries. Two major arguments inspire this issue: The first claims that some crimes are so heinous they provide a threat to the international community. Secondly, behind much of the world’s savagery lies impunity, the fact that leaders or actors know they will never be judged, much less tried, for their offenses.
Supporters of universal jurisdiction claim that these crimes, such as the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide, demand that perpetrators be held accountable for their actions – not only for the sake of their victims, but also for innocent people in the future when different leaders may think twice before committing such acts.
In the past couple years, the world has seen at least three well-known former dictators brought to justice: Slobodan Milosovic, Saddam Huessein and Charles Taylor. (Taylor’s not there yet, but he’s most likely on his way.) The cases against these strongmen often devolve into little more than show-trials, their critics argue, produced for a world bent on revenge, not on justice. Backers of Charles Taylor like to point out that human rights organizations claimed that Saddam Hussein received an unfair trial before he was hanged in Iraq. Ditto for Slobodan Milosovic, before he took his own life.
Another complaint these critics raise is finances. In West Africa, a region where governments cannot find the funds to hire enough school teachers, people don’t miss the irony of rich nations allocating vast sums for the prosecution of a handful of African criminals. A story in New African points this out:
The UN Special Court in Sierra Leone began work nearly four years ago. It has since spent more than $80m. This is mostly as salary for its mainly expatriate staff, amounting to $16m a year – more than that for the entire Sierra Leonean civil service. In its first fully operational year, the Court had a budget of $34m, in its second $29.9m, and in the third $25.5m. But there was not much to show for this expenditure until 29 March 2006 when the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, was finally handed over to the Court in handcuffs. You can, therefore, imagine the joy that descended on the fortified compound of the Court. At long last, the “biggest trophy” was under lock and key in Cell No. 3, and the Court could show its paymasters in Washington, London and elsewhere why it was important to pay $80m for all that trouble.
In the case of Habré, Chandra Lekha Sriram, a Human Rights scholar at the University of East London School of Law, argues that these competing interests must be balanced before full justice can be served. First, Africans must control the legal fate of African leaders; secondly, it is also important to assuage the guilt of former colonizers (i.e. Belgium who wants to atone for its bloody historical record); and finally, the requirements of international law stipulates that certain crimes of great magnitude be tried, no matter where they occurred.
During the years of Senegal’s intransigence, what worried Sriram was not the debate of an African trial versus a European Trial for Habré, but the prospect of a “trial elsewhere vs. no trial at all.”
Habré on the docket
It is safe to say that even if Habré is never brought to trial, the world will by no means miss his years in government. According to Human Rights Watch, the overview of his rule reads like this:
His one party regime was marked by widespread violations of human rights and mass campaigns of violence against his own people. On occasions he undertook persecutions by making collective arrests and committing mass murders against different ethnic groups, especially when he perceived their leaders to be a threat to his regime. This was particularly true of the Sara and other groups from the South (in 1984) the Hadjaraï (in 1987) and the Zaghawa (in 1989).The exact number of Habré’s victims remains unknown to this day. In 1992, a Commission of Enquiry of the Chadian Justice Ministry, set up by his successor, accused the Habré government of 40’000 politically motivated murders and systematic torture.
The New York-based human rights organization, which assisted in the investigation against Habré, claims to have documentation on the details of 97 political killings, 142 cases of torture, 100 “disappearances” and 736 arbitrary arrests. The group also brought up a report by a French medical team treating more than 580 torture victims.
Amnesty International also initiated a very thorough report regarding the crimes of the Habré government:
Throughout his eight years in power, the authority of Hissein Habré, who himself came to power by force, was challenged by armed opposition groups. However, this context of violent clashes cannot justify the widespread and continual serious human rights violations committed in particular by the Chadian armed forces, both during and after military operations, and by officers of the Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité (DDS).
The Chadian government applied a deliberate policy of terror in order to discourage opposition of any kind. Actual and suspected opponents and their families were victims of serious violations of their rights. Civilian populations were the victims of extrajudicial executions, committed in retaliation for armed opposition groups' actions on the basis of purely ethnic or geographical criteria. Thousands of people suspected of not supporting the government were arrested and held in secret by the DDS. Thousands of people died on DDS premises - killed by torture, by the inhuman conditions in which they were detained or by a lack of food or medical care. Captured combatants and unarmed civilians were extrajudicially executed. Some were shot, others burned alive or poisoned, and others tortured to death or killed by starvation. In the face of this, the international community, including western governments which supported the Habré administration, largely remained silent. Even more seriously, some governments, including those of the United States and France, financed the security forces, supplied arms, trained soldiers and actively collaborated with the intelligence services.
What of his brothers in arms?
One reason the case may be so strong against Habré is that teams have had more than 15 years to work on his prosecution. But what does the world do with other African dictators who have left office?
Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former dictator of Ethiopia, was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for genocide in January. Shortly after his overthrow in 1991, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe where he has lived in semi-obscurity. The government of Zimbabwe has refused to cooperate with prosecutors in Ethiopia.
On a lighter note, the New Internationalist presented a mock prosecution against then-president of Kenya Daniel arap Moi.
But as this list of African dictators remaining in office shows, sometimes it may be best for those seeking justice to hold their noses and offer immunity to long-serving despots. As ethically shaky as they appear, immunity deals may be the only way to kick these dinosaurs out the door.
Prosecuting people for crimes against humanity is not only about serving justice and correcting the wrongs of the past. It is about providing a correct historical account of what happened. Immunity deals often help to bring out the truth. Think of South Africa’s flawed, but valuable, Truth and Reconciliation Commission which offered immunity so the new government – and new society – could create a record of Apartheid’s abuses.
Providing immunity – and the promise of a handsome retirement package – may not allow for victims to put together their shattered lives, but it does allow for a country to pick up the pieces, and with this knowledge, finally move on. Think about Guinea, which definitely needs a change at the top. Ditto for Gabon and Zimbabwe. Immunity deals are messy, but in these cases they are most likely necessary.
Even in countries like Burkina Faso, where longtime rulers may not descend to the depths of these despots, a direction to the future needs to be found. My guess is that after twenty years in power, the only way to provide a smooth transition out of office is to offer a few unpleasant promises. We can’t hope that the $5 million Mo Ibrahim Prize can solve everything, can we?