The Habré case shows that with tenacity and cunning, victims can succeed in creating the political conditions to bring a former African president to justice in Africa, with the support of the African Union.
Reed Brody has spent his legal career on the front lines of investigating atrocities and bringing their perpetrators to justice. He worked for 18 years alongside the victims of Chad’s dictator Hissène Habré, who was convicted of crimes against humanity in Senegal, and has helped pursue despots such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti, and Yahya Jammeh of Gambia. He has uncovered abuses by US-backed "contras" in Nicaragua, led United Nations missions in El Salvador and Congo, and exposed Bush administration torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. His latest book, To Catch a Dictator (Columbia University Press, 2022) shines a light on the Habré case.
Interview conducted by Marquise Akamba Mbono (2022)
The interview was conducted in the spring of 2022 and has been edited for clarity
Since the interview with Reed Brody, victims of former president Hissène Habré are seeing a ray of hope for receiving reparations. Last August, an African Union team arrived in the capital city of N'djamena to launch the activities of the trust fund, with the appointment of a Board of Directors composed of victims' representatives. Moreover the son of the deceased president, Mahamat Idriss Déby committed over €15 millions in reparations, as part of the recommendations of Chad’s National Dialogue commission, which empowered him. Chad’s new leader should also examine the conditions to repatriate the mortal remains of Hissène Habré from Senegal.
What is remarkable about the Hissène Habré case?
The advent of Habré’s trial by the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese court system, 25 years after he was overthrown, was almost entirely due to the perseverance and creativity of Habré’s victims and their activist allies who spent those years building the factual and legal case, creating international and forum state support for the trial, and winning victories in the courts of Senegal, Belgium and Chad, the UN Committee against Torture, the African Union, and even the International Court of Justice.
The campaign for justice was led by people like Souleymane Guengueng, a deeply religious civil servant who watched dozens of his cellmates in Habré’s prisons succumb to torture and disease, and took an oath that if he got out alive he would bring his tormentors to justice.
Because of all that work and preparations, the victims determined the contours of the prosecution and dictated the nature of the trial itself. The Habré case shows that with tenacity and cunning, victims can succeed in creating the political conditions to bring a former African president to justice in Africa, with the support of the African Union. In addition, also thanks to the victims’ campaigning, a Chadian criminal court convicted 20 Habré-era security agents on charges of murder, torture, kidnapping, and arbitrary detention.
At this time, who are the key players in the reparation debate and what are their positions?
The victims were awarded reparations by both the Extraordinary African Chambers and by the Chadian criminal court. Indeed, both awards were over $100 million, but to this day the victims have not seen a single penny. (Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, on October 2022, the President of Chad, Idriss Déby Junior, has officially pledged to contribute an equivalent of over $15 million into the reparations fund, but the funds have not yet started to be disbursed to victims.)
The key actors pressing for reparations remain the victims themselves, people like Souleymane Guengueng and Clément Abaifouta, the “gravedigger” required to bury other detainees in mass graves, who took over the victims’ association after death threats forced Guengueng into exile, and their Chadian lawyer Jacqueline Moudeina, who survived a 2001 grenade attack from a Habré henchman to represent the victims with shrapnel still in her leg.
There are also the two institutions responsible for those reparations, the African Union and the government of Chad. The AU was mandated by the Chambers to establish a Trust Fund to locate Habré’s hidden assets, recover and distribute the assets that were frozen by the Chambers and mobilize voluntary contributions. The AU adopted the Statute of the Trust Fund in 2018. A Headquarters Agreement was signed with Chad in 2019. The African Union allocated $5 million to the Trust Fund. But then all movement stopped. Finally, all the attention given to the plight of the victims after Habré’s death in August 2021 spurred an AU team to visit Chad in September 2021 to prepare for the starting up of the Trust Fund. Since that visit, however, there has been another eight months of complete silence.
As far as the Chadian government is concerned, it has not even begun the reparations process, always saying that it was waiting for the AU to establish the Trust Fund, when in fact Chad’s obligations are independent of the AU.
What are your actions to ensure that the EAC’s reparation order does not turn into a fictitious award, to repeat what scholar Christoph Sperfeldt said.
Mobilization, pressure, litigation. In November 2017, Moudeïna and other victims’ lawyers submitted a complaint regarding Chad’s failure to implement the 2015 reparation award to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, where it is pending. In 2017 as well, a team of United Nations experts expressed their concern over the government’s failure to carry out reparations. More recently, states at the UN Human Rights Council called on Chad to make reparations. Regarding the African Union, we have been campaigning vigorously for the AU not to abandon the victims, attending AU summits, and holding press conferences and the like. The victims continue to demonstrate every week and were recently received by the new Chadian authorities.
My research has shown that there are many obstacles faced in the implementation of reparations in the Habré trial context. How to prevent them in future cases?
I think it is important to understand that the primary obligation under international law to make reparations to the victims lies with the government that caused their damage in the first place. Since I got involved in the case, I have been pushing for the government of Chad to pay reparations to the victims. Chad’s responsibility to provide reparations to victims of gross human rights violations is separate and distinct from reparations against the accused. There is no reason that victims’ rights should depend on whether any particular individual is brought to justice. A better example is Gambia, where the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) has already begun awarding reparations to the victims, without waiting for any trials to begin down the road.
Senegal’s President Macky Sall was sworn in as the new Chairperson of the African Union (AU) in February 2022. Do you see this as a shift towards taking the necessary measures to unblock reparations ?
We certainly hope so. After 20 years of frustration trying to bring Habré to court, everything changed for the victims when Macky Sall became president of Senegal in 2012 and, together with his first justice minister Aminata Touré, set everything in motion by establishing the Chambers with the AU, so we are already very grateful to him. Now he just has to finish the work.
Since the interview, victims of former president Hissène Habré are seeing a ray of hope for receiving reparations. Last August, an African Union team arrived in the capital city of N'djamena to launch the activities of the trust fund, with the appointment of a Board of Directors composed of victims' representatives. Moreover the son of the deceased president, Mahamat Idriss Déby committed over €15 millions in reparations, as part of the recommendations of Chad’s National Dialogue commission, which empowered him. Chad’s new leader should also examine the conditions to repatriate the mortal remains of Hissène Habré from Senegal