On May 30, 2016, judges at the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegal court system will deliver their verdict in the trial of former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré. Habré faces charges of crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes, and the prosecutor has asked the court to hand down a life sentence. The chambers were inaugurated by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the “person or persons” most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990, the period when Habré was president.
The trial began on July 20, 2015 and ended on February 11, 2016, after testimony from 93 witnesses and final arguments. It was the first trial in the world in which the courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. It was also the first universal jurisdiction case to proceed to trial in Africa. Universal jurisdiction is a principle of international law that allows national courts to prosecute the most serious crimes even when committed abroad, by a foreigner and against foreign victims. The New York Times has called the case “a milestone for justice in Africa.”
The following questions and answers provide more information on the case.
- Who is Hissène Habré?
- What are the charges against Habré?
- What crimes fall within the jurisdiction of the court?
- Why did it take so long to bring Habré to justice?
- What was the role of the Chadian government in bringing about Habré’s prosecution?
- How did the chambers carry out their investigation?
- Why was Hissène Habré the only person standing trial?
- What about Idriss Déby, Chad's current president?
- What were Habré's rights before the Extraordinary Chambers?
- Habré and his chosen lawyers refused to cooperate with the chambers. What effect did that have?
- How did the trial proceed?
- What were some of the highlights of the prosecution's evidence?
- What was the defense lawyers' strategy?
- How was information about the trial disseminated?
- What is the maximum punishment Habré could receive if found guilty?
- What was the victims' role in the trial?
- Will the victims receive reparations?
- Can there be an appeal?
- How are the Extraordinary Chambers structured and administered?
- How were the prosecutors and judges assigned?
- What about the trial in Chad of Habré-era security agents?
- How are the chambers funded?
- What will happen to the Extraordinary Chambers after the trial?
- What were the key steps in the campaign to bring Habré to justice?
- What is the significance of Habré's prosecution under universal jurisdiction?
- How does this trial fit into critiques of the role of international justice in Africa and claims that universal jurisdiction cases target Africans?
- Why wasn’t Habré prosecuted in Chad?
- Why couldn’t the International Criminal Court prosecute Habre?
Habré was president of the former French colony of Chad from 1982 until he was deposed in 1990 by Idriss Déby Itno, the current president. Habré has been living in exile in Senegal ever since.
A 714-page study by Human Rights Watch documented evidence of Habré’s government’s responsibility for widespread political killings, systematic torture, and thousands of arbitrary arrests. The government periodically targeted civilian populations, including in the south (1983-1985), and various ethnic groups such as Chadian Arabs, the Hadjerai (1987) and the Zaghawa (1989-90), killing and arresting group members en masse when the administration perceived that the groups’ leaders posed a threat to Habré’s rule.
A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré's government of systematic torture and said that 40,000 people died during his rule. Most abuses were carried out by his political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), whose directors reported directly to Habré. The four successive directors belonged to Habré’s inner circle, some to the same ethnic group, Gorane anakaza, and one to the same family as Habré.
The United States and France supported Habré as a bulwark against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who had expansionist designs on northern Chad. Under President Ronald Reagan, the United States gave covert CIA support to help Habré take power in 1982 and then provided his government with massive military aid. The United States also used a clandestine base in Chad to organize captured Libyan soldiers into an anti-Gaddafi force in the late 1980s. Despite the abduction of the French anthropologist Françoise Claustre by Habré’s forces in 1974 and the murder of Captain Pierre Galopin, who went to Chad to negotiate her release in 1975, France also supported Habré against Gaddafi after he took power, providing him with arms, logistical support and information, and carrying out military operations “Manta” (1983) and “Hawk” (1986) to help Chad push back Libyan forces.
On July 2, 2013 the four investigating judges of the Extraordinary Chambers indicted Habré for crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes. On February 13, 2015, after a 19-month investigation, the judges found sufficient evidence for Habré to face charges of crimes against humanity and torture as a member of a “joint criminal enterprise” and of war crimes on the basis of his “command responsibility.” Specifically, they charged Habré with:
- The practice of murder, summary executions, and kidnapping followed by enforced disappearance and torture, amounting to crimes against humanity, against the Hadjerai and Zaghawa ethnic groups, the people of southern Chad and political opponents;
- Torture; and
- The war crimes of murder, torture, unlawful transfer and unlawful confinement, and violence to life and physical well-being.
The chamber’s statute gives it competence over the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture as defined in the statute. The definitions generally track those used in the statutes of the International Criminal Court and other international tribunals. The crimes must have taken place in Chad between June 7, 1982, and December 1, 1990, which correspond to the dates of Habré’s rule.
The advent of the trial, almost 25 years after Habré’s fall, is entirely due to the perseverance of Habré’s victims and their allies in nongovernmental groups. When Habré was arrested in July 2013, the Toronto Globe and Mail lauded “one of the world’s most patient and tenacious campaigns for justice.” The New York Times wrote that the “Habré case has stood out because of determined victims who were advised and supported by Human Rights Watch and other advocates.” Habré was first indicted by a Senegalese judge in 2000, but for the next 12 years the Senegalese government of former President Abdoulaye Wade subjected the victims to what the Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and 117 groups from 25 African countries described as an “interminable political and legal soap opera.” It was only in 2012, when Macky Sall became president of Senegal and the International Court of Justice ordered Senegal to prosecute Habré or extradite him, that progress was made toward the trial.
Habré’s supporters claim that Deby’s government is behind the effort to prosecute him. However, since the victims’ first complaint in 2000, it has been the victims and their supporters who have pressed the case forward, overcoming one obstacle after another. The Chadian government has long expressed its support for Habré’s prosecution, and in 2002 it waived Habré's immunity from prosecution abroad, but it did not otherwise contribute to advancing the case in a meaningful way until it agreed to help finance the court and cooperated with the investigating judges during their four missions to Chad in 2013 and 2014. More recently, the Chadian government seemingly cooled toward the chambers, particularly in Chad’s refusal to transfer additional suspects or to allow Habré-era agents convicted in a separate proceeding in Chad (see below) to testify at Habre’s trial.
The investigating judges began with access to a considerable amount of evidence collected in the years since Habré’s fall, including prior Belgian and Chadian investigations into Habré’s alleged crimes.
A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré's government of systematic torture and said that 40,000 people died during his rule. In addition, the chambers’ judges obtained the extensive file Belgian investigators prepared on Habré during four years, which contains interviews with witnesses and “insiders” who worked alongside Habré, as well as DDS documents.
Most important, the chambers’ four investigating judges conducted their own thorough 19-month investigation, and for the most part relied on evidence they developed themselves.
On May 3, 2013, Senegal and Chad signed a “Judicial cooperation agreement” to facilitate the chambers’ investigation in Chad.
The investigative judges conducted four missions (“commissions rogatoires”) to Chad - in August - September 2013, December 2013, March 2014, and May - June 2014. They were accompanied by the chief prosecutor and his deputies as well as police officers. During their visits, the judges gathered statements from 2,500 direct and indirect victims and key witnesses, including former officials of the Habré government.
The judges took copies of DDS files that Human Rights Watch had recovered in 2001. Among the tens of thousands of documents were daily lists of prisoners and deaths in detention, interrogation reports, surveillance reports, and death certificates. The files detail how Habré placed the DDS under his direct control and kept tight control over DDS operations. Analysis of the data for Human Rights Watch revealed the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention and 12,321 victims of human rights violations. In these files alone, Habré received 1,265 direct communications from the DDS about the status of 898 detainees.
The judges also appointed experts on data analysis, forensic anthropology, handwriting, the historical context of Habré’s government and the functioning and command structure of Habré’s military.
The Chadian victims’ goal in seeking justice in Senegal since 2000 has been a trial of Habré, the head of state who directly controlled the security apparatus and had primary responsibility for his government’s actions. The victims also filed cases in 2000 in Chad against other officials of Habré’s government who were still in Chad.
Under article 3 of the chambers’ statute, the Extraordinary African Chambers can prosecute “the person or persons most responsible” for international crimes committed in Chad during Habré’s rule. In July 2013, the chief prosecutor requested the indictment of five additional officials from Habré’s administration suspected of being responsible for international crimes. These are:
- Saleh Younous and Guihini Korei, two former directors of the DDS. Korei is Habré’s nephew;
- Abakar Torbo, former director of the DDS prison service;
- Mahamat Djibrine, also known as “El Djonto,” one of the “most feared torturers in Chad,” according to the National Truth Commission; and
- Zakaria Berdei, former special security adviser to the presidency and one of those suspected of responsibility in the repression in the south in 1984.
None of them was brought before the court, however. Younous and Djibrine were convicted in Chad on charges stemming from the complaints filed by victims in the Chadian courts (see below), and Chad refused to extradite them to Senegal. Berdei is also believed to be in Chad, though he is not in custody. The locations of Torbo and Korei are unknown. As a result, only Habré was committed to trial.
President Déby was commander in chief of Habré’s forces during the period known as “Black September,” in 1984, when a murderous wave of repression was unleashed to bring southern Chad back into the fold of the central government. In 1985, Déby was removed from this post, and after a period of study in a military school in France, he was appointed a defense adviser until he left Chad in 1989 to take up arms against Habré.
It is important to note that Article 10 of the chambers’ statute provides that “[t]he official position of an accused, whether as Head of State or Government, or as a responsible government official, shall not relieve him or her of criminal responsibility….” The chambers were thus free to pursue charges against President Déby even though he is currently a head of state, but they did not.
The process before the Extraordinary Chambers was governed by its own Statute and the Senegalese Code of Criminal Procedure. Habré was entitled to a fair trial in accordance with international law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights outline the minimum guarantees that must be afforded to defendants in criminal proceedings.
In accordance with those standards, the chambers’ Statute provides a number of rights to defendants, including:
- the right to be present during trial;
- the presumption of innocence;
- the right to a public hearing;
- the right to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of the defense;
- the right to counsel and legal assistance;
- the right to be tried without undue delay; and
- the right to examine and call witnesses.
Many defendants facing trial for alleged crimes under international criminal law – such as Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Charles Taylor– asserted that they did not recognize the authority of the tribunal or that they would not cooperate, or have sought to use the trial as a platform to present their version of events.
The burden always remains on the prosecution to prove the accused’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. However, if the accused decides to not cooperate in their own trial, that inevitably undermines the exercise of their right to an effective defense, which includes the ability to challenge the evidence against them and the opportunity to call into question the prosecution’s case.
After Habré’s lawyers refused to appear at the opening of the trial in July 2015 because they consider the court to be illegitimate, the court appointed three Senegalese lawyers to defend him and adjourned for 45 days so they could prepare. The first day back, on September 7, Habré was brought in to the court by force, kicking and screaming. After that, he was brought into the courtroom for each session before the doors to the public opened. The three court-appointed lawyers played an active role in questioning each witness and challenging the prosecution’s case, but were handicapped by Habré’s refusal to cooperate with them. Habré has remained silent, as is his right, even when the prosecutor tried to question him in line with standard criminal trial procedure in civil law jurisdictions.
The chambers sat for 56 days and heard from 93 witnesses. The trial examined evidence regarding alleged crimes committed during various periods in Chad under Habré: attacks against the Hadjerai ethnic group (1987), the Zaghawas (1989), and southern populations including the so-called “Black September” in 1984; the arrest and torture of political prisoners, and the treatment of prisoners of war. Some of the most moving testimony came from survivors, who described their experience in prisons and camps. Among the other witnesses were experts on that period in Chad, the president of the 1992 Chadian truth commission, former members the DDS, the Belgian judge who carried out a four-year investigation into a complaint filed against Habré in Belgium, a French doctor who treated 581 torture victims, researchers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and forensic, statistical and handwriting experts.
The witnesses, after presenting their testimony to the court, were questioned, in turn, by the prosecutor, the civil party lawyers and Habré’s court-appointed lawyers. The judges, in a departure from the French civil law “inquisitorial” model, generally did not put many questions to the witnesses.
- Four women sent to a camp in the desert north of Chad in 1988 testified that they were used as sexual slaves for the army and that soldiers had repeatedly raped multiple women. Two were under 15 at the time. One testified that Habré himself had also raped her.
- Other survivors testified that rape of women detainees was frequent in the DDS’s Locaux prison in N’Djaména.
- Ten witnesses testified that they had personally seen Habré in prison or were sent to prison personally by Habré.
- Prison survivors said that corpses were kept rotting in jail cells until there were considered to be enough to be taken away.
- Survivors described the main forms of torture, in particular the “arbatachar,” which involved tying all four of a prisoner's limbs behind their back to interrupt the bloodstream and induce paralysis.
- Bandjim Bandoum, once a top DDS agent, testified about the agency’s inner workings. He explained that when reports on detainees were sent to the presidency, they came back with annotations: E for “executer - execute”; L for “liberer - set free” or V for “vu - seen.” “Only the president could request a release," he said.
- A court-appointed handwriting expert confirmed that it was Habré who responded to a request by the International Committee of the Red Cross for the hospitalization of certain prisoners of war by writing “From now on, no prisoner of war can leave the Detention Center except in case of death.”
- Patrick Ball of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group presented a study of mortality in Habré’s prisons, based on the DDS’s own documents, concluding that prison mortality was “hundreds of times higher than normal mortality for adult men in Chad during the same period” and “substantially higher than some of the twentieth century’s worst POW contexts” such as German prisoners of war in Soviet custody and US prisoners of war in Japanese custody.
- Experts from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team carried out exhumations at a number of potential mass grave sites. In Deli, in southern Chad, the site of an alleged killing of unarmed rebels in September 1984, the experts located 21 bodies, almost all military-age men, most of whom were killed by gunshot. In Mongo, in the center of Chad, the experts uncovered 14 bodies from another 1984 massacre.
- Clement Abaifouta, the president of the Association of Victims of the Crimes of the Hissène Habré Regime, testified that he was forced to bury the bodies of deceased detainees in mass graves.
- Souleymane Guengueng, the founder of the victims’ association, showed the court crude eating utensils he had carved in jail.
- Robert Hissein Gambier, who survived five years in prison, earning the nickname “The man who runs faster than death,” said that he counted 2,053 detainees who died in prison. He brought wooden sticks to demonstrate how his head was squeezed as torture.
- Abdourahmane Guèye, a Senegalese merchant imprisoned in Chad, testified that his release was won through diplomatic negotiations between the Senegalese and Chadian governments. His Senegalese companion, Demba Gaye, died, according to DDS documents, after being placed in the “cell of death” in the Locaux prison.
- Mahamat Nour Dadji, the child of a close adviser to Habré, testified that the DDS director arrived at their home in Habré’s car saying, “The president needs you.” Dadji was detained with his father, who was never seen again.
- Bichara Djibrine Ahmat testified that in 1983 he was taken with 149 other Chadian prisoners of war to be executed. Only he survived to take the truth commission 10 years later to find the mass grave.
13. What was the defense lawyers’ strategy?
The court-appointed lawyers tried to show that Habré himself was not involved in committing crimes, and challenged the credibility of a number of witnesses, particularly those who implicated Habré directly. They asserted that the accusations against Habré were part of an exaggerated media and political campaign originated by Amnesty International and the Chadian truth commission, and then taken up by Human Rights Watch with the support of the current Chadian government.
The lawyers said that Habré was a patriot, committed to defending Chad against Libyan aggression and secessionist rebels. (“If it were not thanks to President Habré, Chad would not be Chad today, but a province of Libya.”) Habré’s response was to combat insurgents but not civilians. The DDS was not under his authority, but under the Interior Ministry.
The trial was recorded in its entirety, except for some technical problems. It was streamed live on the internet and broadcast on Chadian television. Almost all the sessions have been posted to the internet. Human Rights Watch considers this a major success in ensuring that the trial was meaningful to, and understood by, the people of Chad and Senegal. The landmark nature of this trial made it all the more important that it was available for viewing by the widest possible audience.
The chambers, through a consortium of non-governmental organizations from Senegal, Belgium and Chad that received a contract from the court, undertook outreach programs to both Chad and Senegal. The consortium has trained journalists in both countries, organized public debates, created a website and produced materials to explain the trial.
Human Rights Watch was part of a separate consortium of non-governmental organizations that facilitated the travel of Chadian journalists to Senegal to cover the trial, and the travel of Senegalese journalists to Chad during the pre-trial proceedings.
If Habré is found guilty, the chambers could impose a sentence of up to life in prison. This is the punishment requested by chief prosecutor Mbacké Fall in his closing statement on February 10. The prosecution also requested the seizure of Habré’s property frozen during the inquiry - two small bank accounts and a property in an upscale Dakar neighborhood.
If Habré is sentenced to prison, he could serve that sentence in Senegal. However the statute also provides that he could serve it “in one of the African Union member States with which Senegal has entered into an agreement concerning the execution of prison sentences.”
Victims were permitted to participate in proceedings as civil parties. More than 4,000 victims registered as civil parties. Two teams of lawyers represented the civil parties, questioning witnesses, presenting evidence and participating in the closing statements.
The victims also left their mark on the trial through their long campaign for justice as well as their dramatic testimony. An opinion article in The New York Times reflected that “[n]ever in a trial for mass crimes have the victims’ voices been so dominant.”
Under its statute, in the event of a conviction, the chambers may order reparations against the accused. These can be paid into a victims’ fund, which can also receive voluntary contributions by foreign governments, international institutions, and non-governmental organizations. Reparations from the victims’ fund will be open to all victims, individually or collectively, whether or not they participated in Habré’s trial.
The chief judge, Gberdao Gustave Kam, has said that if Habré is found guilty, there will be a second set of hearings on damages for the civil parties
In July 2013, after the chambers arrested Habré, President Déby said that the Chadian government would compensate survivors and relatives of those who died. There is also a Chadian court judgment ordering the government to make reparations (see below). Chad’s responsibility under international law to provide reparations to victims of gross human rights violations is separate and distinct from reparations against the accused.
Whether Habre is found guilty or acquitted, all parties in the trial – that is the prosecution, the accused and the victims with respect to their civil interests, could appeal. Although Habré does not recognize the Chambers’ authority, the court-appointed lawyers could lodge an appeal on his behalf. If an appeal is lodged by any party, an Extraordinary African Appeals Chamber would be constituted to hear the appeal.
The Extraordinary African Chambers were created inside the existing Senegalese court structure in Dakar. The chambers have four levels: an Investigative Chamber with four Senegalese investigative judges, an Indicting Chamber of three Senegalese judges, a Trial Chamber, and an Appeals Chamber. The Trial Chamber and the Appeals Chamber each have two Senegalese judges and a president from another African Union member state.
The chambers also have an administrator to ensure the smooth functioning of their activities and to handle all non-judicial aspects of the work. The administrator’s responsibilities include financial management of personnel, outreach and media information, witness protection and assistance, and judicial cooperation between Senegal and other countries, such as Chad. The administrator since the opening of the chambers has been Aly Ciré Ba, a Senegalese magistrate.
The prosecutors and investigative judges were nominated by Senegal’s justice minister and appointed by the chairperson of the AU Commission. The president of the Trial Chamber is Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso.
On March 25, 2015, a Chadian criminal court convicted 20 Habré-era security agents on charges of murder, torture, kidnapping and arbitrary detention, based on complaints filed by the same group of victims in 2000 but that were stalled until Senegal created the extraordinary chambers. During the Chad trial, about 50 victims described their torture and mistreatment at the hands of DDS agents. The court sentenced seven men to life in prison, including Saleh Younous, a former director of the DDS, and Mahamat Djibrine, described as one of the “most feared torturers in Chad” by the Truth Commission. Both men were also originally wanted for possible indictment by the chambers, but Chad declined to transfer them. Most of the 20 gave their testimony to the chambers when they visited Chad, but the Chadian government also refused to allow them to travel to Senegal to testify at trial. The Chadian court acquitted four others.
The Chadian court ordered the Chadian government to pay half of the US$125 million in reparations to 7,000 victims and those convicted to pay the other half. The court also ordered the government, within a year, to erect a monument to those who were killed under Habré and to turn the former DDS headquarters a museum. These were both among the long-standing demands of the victims’ associations. One year after the court decision, the Chadian government has not implemented any of these compensatory measures.
The chambers are funded in large part by donor countries. In November 2012, Senegal and donor countries agreed to a budget of €8.6million (US$11.4 million at the time) to cover Habré’s trial. Commitments were made by: Chad (2 billion CFA francs or US$3,743,000), the European Union (€2 million), the Netherlands (€1 million), the African Union (US$1 million), the United States (US$1 million), Belgium (€500,000), Germany (€500,000), France (€300,000), and Luxembourg (€100,000). The Netherlands has also given extra support to the Outreach consortium. In addition, Canada, Switzerland, and the International Committee of the Red Cross have provided technical assistance. A Steering Committee chaired by the African Union and consisting of Senegal and the donors receives and approves periodic reports from the administrator.
The Extraordinary African Chambers will be dissolved once the judgment in the case of Hissène Habré is final.
In January 2000, inspired by the London arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, a group of Chadian victims filed a complaint against Habré in Senegal. In February of the same year, a Senegalese judge indicted Habré on charges of torture, crimes against humanity, and “barbaric acts.” However, after political interference by the new Senegalese government of President Abdoulaye Wade, which was criticized by two UN human rights rapporteurs, appellate courts dismissed the case on the ground that Senegalese courts lacked competence to try crimes committed abroad.
Other Habré government victims, including three Belgian citizens of Chadian origin, then filed a case against Habré in Belgium in November 2000. The Belgian authorities investigated the case for four years, then indicted Habré in 2005 and sought his extradition. A Senegalese court ruled that it lacked competence to decide on the extradition request.
Senegal then turned to the African Union, which in July 2006 called on Senegal to prosecute Habré “on behalf of Africa” before its own courts. President Wade accepted the AU mandate and Senegalese law was amended to give the country’s courts explicit universal jurisdiction over international crimes, including torture and crimes against humanity. However, Wade contended that Senegal needed full up-front international funding of €27.4 million (US$36.5 million) before beginning any prosecution. Three years of halting negotiations over the trial budget ensued, until Senegal and donor countries finally agreed in November 2010 to a budget of €8.6 million (US$11.4 million) for Habré’s trial.
Just days before the budget agreement, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled that Habré should be tried before a “special ad hoc procedure of an international character.” In January 2011, the AU responded to the ECOWAS court ruling by proposing a plan for special chambers within the Senegalese justice system with some judges appointed by the AU. Senegal rejected the plan, and in May 2011, withdrew from negotiations with the AU over creation of the tribunal.
In 2011 and 2012, Belgium issued three more extradition requests, which were not properly transmitted by the Senegalese authorities to its courts.
On July 20, 2012, in response to a suit brought by Belgium, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s highest judicial organ, found that Senegal had failed to meet its obligations under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and ordered Senegal to prosecute Habré “without further delay” if it did not extradite him.
The new Senegalese government of Macky Sall reacted quickly to the ICJ decision, expressing regret that Habré’s trial had not taken place sooner and reaffirming its commitment to begin proceedings quickly. Negotiations resumed between Senegal and the AU, ultimately leading to an agreement to create the Extraordinary African Chambers to conduct proceedings within the Senegalese judicial system. On December 17, the Senegalese National Assembly adopted a law establishing the special chambers. On February 8, 2013, the Extraordinary African Chambers were inaugurated in Dakar.
As demonstrated by the Habré case, universal jurisdiction is an important safety net to ensure that suspects of atrocities do not enjoy impunity in a third state when they cannot be prosecuted before the courts of the country where the crimes were allegedly committed or before an international court. There has been an increase in the use of universal jurisdiction over the past 20 years, notably but not exclusively by courts in European countries. To strengthen the fight against impunity for the most serious crimes, it is critical for courts on all continents to use universal jurisdiction. The African Union has encouraged its member states to adopt legislation to give their national courts universal jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide and has taken steps to initiate a network of national prosecutors working on war crimes cases. Several investigations have been opened in South Africa and Senegal on the basis of universal jurisdiction.
Habré’s trial is an important step forward in African states taking responsibility to prosecute serious international crimes. However, the Habré trial does not negate the importance of the ICC and the use of universal jurisdiction by non-African states, including European courts, for crimes committed in Africa. These tools are often the only available hope for justice for African victims.
International justice has been applied unevenly. Powerful countries and their allies have often been able to avoid justice when serious crimes are committed on their territories, notably by failing to ratify the ICC treaty and wielding their political influence at the UN Security Council.
Nongovernmental organizations have actively campaigned for African governments to work to improve international justice and its reach —as opposed to undermining it— to limit impunity for atrocities.
Chad never sought Habré’s extradition, and there are serious doubts that Habré could have gotten a fair trial in Chad, where he had been sentenced to death in absentia for his alleged role in a 2008 rebellion. In July 2011, President Wade threatened to expel Habré to Chad but, days later, retracted his decision in the face of an international outcry over the risk that Habré would be mistreated or even killed.
The International Criminal Court only has jurisdiction over crimes committed after July 1, 2002, when its statute entered into effect. The crimes of which Hissène Habré is accused took place between 1982 and 1990.