Hissène Habré’s Conviction for Crimes Against Humanity

Hissène Habré, the President of the Republic of Chad from 1982 to 1990, has been convicted of crimes against humanity by a special tribunal in the Republic of Senegal. He has been sentenced to life in prison. The punishment is well deserved. He could have been a hero to his fellow Africans for standing up to the bullying of dictator Moamar Gaddafi in neighboring Libya. But he was totally blood thirsty, murdering as many as 40,000 political opposition and ordinary citizens merely because they belonged to ethnic groups that he considered treasonous or dangerous. 

The trial and conviction in an African court of a former African head of state for crimes against humanity, may have set an interesting precedent for the international criminal courts system. African leaders and intellectuals have complained that the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague appears to be concentrating almost exclusively on African suspects. They appear to be ignoring criminal perpetrators who are hiding in plain sight in Latin America and Asia. The current President of Sudan is under indictment by the ICC, but he travels freely in African countries that refuse to do their international duty and extradite him to The Hague. The Hissène Habré convinction in Senegal may mark the beginning of the end of the ICC’s jurisdiction in Africa. 

I knew Habré when he was President of Chad. I first met him when I was Deputy Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Department of State during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. We were interested in Chad at that time for two reasons: 
Libyan armed forces were occupying the northern region of Chad, claiming that a large area known as the Aouzou Strip belonged to Libya. The Reagan Administration was very hostile to Moamar Gaddafi, the “Leader” of Libya, because of his support for terrorism around the world, including the bombing of an American military gathering place in West Berlin in 1986. 

The US major oil company, EXXON, had made a significant oil discovery in southwestern Chad near a town called Doba. Successful development of the field required stability. 

During his eight years in power, Habré was a major human rights violator in his home country. Political opposition groups were subjected to torture and extrajudicial executions in large numbers. Estimates of Chadians murdered by Habré are as high as 40,000. 
Habré was also not on good terms with France, the former colonial power. As a leader of an insurgent force before he took over power, Habré took hostages. One hostage, a French anthropologist, Madame Claustre, was held for three years. When the French government sent Major Henri Galopin to negotiate her release, Habré gratuitously murdered him. The French were also not happy with the fact that Habré later favored an American oil company to develop the newly discovered oil reserve instead of a French company. 

In 1984, the US and French governments decided to assist President Habre and his military to build up the resources needed to defeat the Libyan forces occupying northern Chad. By that time, Libyan forces had constructed an airfield in the Aouzou strip, and were using it to bomb both Sudanese government and rebel units in neighboring Sudan. Gaddafi was using northern Chad as a base from which to try and influence political developments in Sudan. The location provided Libya a major geographic advantage because its main military bases were over 800 miles away near Tripoli. 

The two governments provided training and equipment to the Chadian army under the command of General Idris Deby, the man who later overthrew Habré. In early 1987, the Chadians began attacking the Libyan forces. The Libyan fighters disintegrated easily, and fled Chad in disgrace. Needless to say, this delighted the Reagan administration. The President was so delighted that he invited Hissène Habré to visit him in the White House in May 1987. I was there as Special Assistant to President Reagan and Senior Director for Africa. 

During the discussion between the two presidents, President Reagan asked Habré to give his analysis as to why Libyan leader Gaddafi felt so free to occupy neighboring African countries, and to interfere in their internal affairs. Habré said that Moamar Gaddafi never accepted the end of the slave trade between sub-Saharan and Arab north Africa. Gaddafi considered the black Africans to be no better than slaves. Hence, he felt free to attack, occupy and interfere in neighboring African countries. Habré’s declaration greatly endeared him to President Reagan and his advisers who were present. 

In 1989, General Idris Deby, Chief of Staff of the Chadian Army fled to neighboring Sudan in fear of his own life. With the help of the French intelligence service, Deby was able to recruit an army of Chadian insurgents who invaded Chad in 1990. They ousted Habré who escaped across the border to Cameroon, and eventually settled in Senegal as a political exile. Under pressure from human rights groups, Habré was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. The Government of Senegal decided not to send Habré to The Hague for trial, but decided instead to try him in Senegal before a special tribunal. 

Senegal’s decision to try Habré in Senegal instead of sending him to The Hague as required by international treaty, is likely to have major repercussions. Most cases before the ICC involve African leaders. Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, was convicted of war crimes by the ICC, and is now serving a 35-year prison sentence. Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been convicted of war crimes, and is now awaiting sentencing. On the other hand, Omar Bashir, the President of Sudan has been indicted for war crimes, but continues to travel within Africa with impunity. None of his African hosts is willing to send him to the ICC in The Hague. The Habré precedent may be a message from Africa to the ICC. “We will take care of our own from now on. Thank you very much.”