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Milosevic, Saddam, Taylor. Who's next?

The transfer of former Liberian president and war crimes suspect Charles Taylor to the UN-backed Special Court on Sierra Leone is more evidence that the world has become a less hospitable place for people who are accused of committing atrocities.

The arrest of Taylor, the principal culprit for West Africa's descent into brutal civil wars, was an extraordinary moment for the people of the region.

It also shows how far we have come from the days when dictators could terrorize their people, secure in the knowledge that they would never be brought to book.

Until recently, it seemed that if you killed one person, you went to jail, but if you slaughtered thousands, you usually got away with it.

Times change, however. Just ask Augusto Pinochet or Saddam Hussein. The establishment of the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Court, represents a new determination by the international community to seek punishment of the worst international crimes. The death of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in a jail cell in the Hague was another reminder that despots are no longer assured of spending their golden years in quiet retirement.

In Africa, the International Criminal Court is probing war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and, most importantly, the Darfur region of Sudan.

But African leaders have been notoriously reluctant to bring one of their own to justice - perhaps fearing that the precedent may come back to bite them. Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose "Red Terror" campaign in Ethiopia targeted tens of thousands of political opponents, now lives in Zimbabwe under the protection of President Robert Mugabe.

No attempt was made to bring back Idi Amin, accused of massive crimes in Uganda, from the comfortable Saudi Arabian exile where he died in 2003. Amin's equally brutal successor Milton Obote died last year in Zambia without ever facing justice.

Now that President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria have collaborated to get Charles Taylor to trial, perhaps a psychological barrier has been broken in Africa.

The next test case for African leaders is that of the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture during his rule from 1982 to 1990.

The evidence against Habré is strong. Thousands of documents that I discovered in the abandoned headquarters of Habré's political police show how it hunted down the regime's suspected opponents.

The lists of dead prisoners add up to 1,208, confirming what I heard - that most of those who entered Habré's dungeons, including one at the presidential compound, never came out alive.

A group of Habré's victims followed him to Senegal, where he lives opulently off the fruits of a last- minute looting spree of the Chadian treasury.

A Senegalese court indicted Habré for crimes against humanity but, after political interference, higher courts ruled that he could not be tried there for crimes committed abroad.

Habré's victims searched elsewhere for justice and found a Belgian court to take the case under that country's long-arm "universal jurisdiction" law. Chad, which does not want Habré back and could not offer him a fair trial, invited the Belgian judge to Chad to carry out his investigation.

Last year, after a four-year probe, the judge indicted Habré and Belgium requested his extradition from Senegal. The Senegalese government, under pressure from Habré's well-paid supporters (and reportedly from several other African leaders) once again ducked the case, "transferring" it to the African Union.

In January, the African Union created a committee of legal experts to recommend what to do with Habré. The jurists will report back to the AU summit in July, but several African leaders - including AU President Denis Sasso Nguesso of the Congo Republic - have already ruled out his extradition to Belgium.

Some have argued that it would be an insult to African dignity if Habré were sent to Europe to be tried. But the fact is that Senegal refused to prosecute Habré when it had the opportunity to do so, and in the 15 years since Habré was ousted, no other African country has asked for his extradition. Belgium thus represents the victims' only real hope of holding Habré accountable.

Africans deserve justice. Now that Charles Taylor is in the dock, Hissène Habré must be next.

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