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Hissène Habré, Chad’s former dictator, just got a life sentence for crimes he committed in the 1980s

- June 1, 2016
Former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, leaving court in 2015, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison by a special court in Senegal on May 30, 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

His victims in Chad had been waiting for years.

On May 30, the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) — an African Union special tribunal in Dakar, Senegal — sentenced Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, to life in prison for crimes against humanity. On trial since last July, Habré faced a long list of charges: summary executions, forced disappearances, torture and rape. Habré has two weeks to appeal the verdict.

Habré’s legacy of human rights abuses

Habré ruled Chad from 1982 until 1990, when he was toppled by the current Chadian president, Idris Deby Itno. He then fled to live in exile in Senegal. Habré’s rule was rife with human rights abuses amidst Chad’s internal wars and a war against Libya. Over 40,000 people died during his eight-year dictatorship, according to a 1992 truth commission in Chad.

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Victims and human rights organizations called repeatedly for his prosecution. Belgium issued a warrant for his arrest in 2005, in the wake of the Pinochet Effect, which created a precedent for leaders to be charged and tried outside of their home countries. Belgium requested his extradition, invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction — a principle of international law that holds some crimes as so serious that they may be prosecuted by foreign national courts regardless of where they were committed.

Senegal refused to send Habré to Brussels, partly because he was protected by the Senegalese political class and treated as a guest of the country, living a very private life. Belgium referred the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which later ruled that Senegal must either try Habré or extradite him. Senegal then referred the matter to the African Union, which then asked Senegal to bring Habré to trial “in the name of Africa.”

The EAC special court in Senegal was the next step. Staffed by Senegalese and other African judges, the EAC was tasked with prosecuting the persons most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad during Habré’s rule. A total of 93 witnesses, including many victims, testified before the court during the trial.

Habré did not recognize the legitimacy of the court, refusing to defend himself. His lawyers boycotted the proceedings. Court-appointed lawyers did their best to defend Habré, without his assistance or cooperation.

Habré denounced the proceedings as guided by the Françafrique — a term critical of the continued influence of France over its former colonies — and neocolonialism. The fact that the tribunal was funded by the U.S., the EU, other European countries and Chad perhaps reinforced Habré’s claim that the EAC was not a legitimate court to put him on trial in the first place.

Is Habré “Africa’s Pinochet”?

This trial was an important test case for the ability and willingness of African states to seek justice for crimes committed by a former head of state. The Habré trial also is the first instance in Africa where a former head of state stood trial in a different country for crimes against humanity and human rights abuses. And in another first, the trial was the first time the principle of universal jurisdiction was used to try a former head of state.

The ramifications of this conviction go well beyond Africa itself. Following the verdict, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that “this is also an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from, our own connection with past events in Chad.” Kerry hinted at the CIA’s role in the coup that brought Habré into power in 1982 — and the fact that the regime received U.S. and French weapons and assistance to fight Gaddafi’s Libya. In short, Habré was “our man in Africa,” all while committing the crimes for which he now stands convicted.

Implications for international justice in Africa

There is no doubt that the completion of the Habré trial is a milestone in the road to accountability for gross human rights violations and atrocity crimes in Africa. One of the main current controversies of international criminal justice is that the International Criminal Court (ICC), established to prosecute atrocity crimes, has only indicted Africans since it started operating in 2012. The suspects have included sitting heads of states, a former president and numerous other individuals, all originating from African countries.

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At a time when relations between the African Union and the ICC are constrained, as the African Union has asked its members not to execute the court’s warrants, critics of the ICC would be quick to point out that Africa can and should provide its own judicial mechanisms for crimes committed in the continent. And indeed, the African Union is moving towards establishing a permanent regional court — the African Court of Justice and Human Rights. Its jurisdiction will be extended to include individual criminal responsibility for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

However, the rhetoric from African leaders about their willingness to crack down on atrocity crimes may run into some stumbling blocks in reality. They may well be ready to develop mechanisms to bypass the ICC, but in a convoluted way that would still shield them from their own prosecution. In a highly controversial move, the African Union recently approved an amendment to the African Court of Justice and Human Rights statute that grants immunity for current government officials.

Increasingly, international criminal justice is governed by tensions — between sovereignty and international criminal justice, between shared norms and need for enforcement, between international and national jurisdictions. But the main takeaway of Habré’s trial and sentence may be that it took a quarter-century for justice to catch up with him, and this shows that the wheels of justice do turn very slowly.

Oumar Ba is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Florida studying the politics of international criminal justice, a member of the Sahel Research Group and contributing editor to Africa Is A Country.