Late last week, Senegal readied itself to extradite former Chadian dictator Hissene Habré back to his home country, where he has been sentenced to death.
For months, international organizations like the United Nations have been pressuring Senegal to act on Habré’s case, and either try him there or hand him over to another court. Habré has been living in Senegal, under various indictments, since 1990.
Many feel, myself included, that Habré’s case will set important precedents regarding accountability for leaders, not just in Africa but around the world. AP writes that Habré “has become a symbol of impunity.”
The importance of the case increases outsiders’ concerns that it be administered fairly. Hence the UN objected to the plan to send Habré back to Chad:
“I urge the Government of Senegal to review its decision and to ensure that Habré’s extradition is carried out in a way that ensures his fair trial rights will be respected and he will not be subjected to torture or the death penalty,” said Ms. [Navi] Pillay [the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights].
“As a party to the Convention Against Torture, Senegal may not extradite a person to a State where there are substantial grounds for believing he would be in danger of being subjected to torture. At the very least Senegal must obtain fair trial guarantees from the Government of Chad before any extradition takes place,” she added.
Ms. Pillay said extraditing Mr. Habré in the present circumstances, in which those guarantees are not yet in place, may amount to a violation of international law.
Yesterday Senegal bowed to the pressure and agreed to suspend the extradition.
Senegal’s Foreign Minister Madicke Niang on Sunday announced the government had reversed its decision to return Mr Habre following the UN plea.
Mr Niang told state broadcaster RTS that Senegal would hold talks with the UN and European Union to try to solve the situation.
These events raise familiar questions about international law and national sovereignty. I think we become so used to such debates that it’s easy to forget how blatantly the international community, and in particular European leaders, dismiss the integrity of a judicial system like Chad’s. I believe the UN is right that sending Habré to Chad could result in his torture and execution and in a perversion of justice, and I understand that one of the foundations of international law is the idea that some (all?) countries have issues they cannot handle properly on their own, but it is striking to see international organizations articulate their distrust of individual countries so clearly.
That kind of distrust has implications that go beyond just Habré’s case. Other leaders recognize those implications. In other words, the politics of international law loom particularly large in this case, which helps explain why Senegal has preferred to keep Habré in a sort of legal limbo, or try to make him someone else’s problem, rather than moving to conclude the case. Habré is a symbol of impunity, but he is also a symbol of how hard it is, in the international legal arena, to sort out questions of when, where, and how major trials will take place.
[UPDATE July 12]: Chad‘s government seems to prefer the option of trying the former dictator in Chad, but is open to multiple solutions:
The Chadian government signalled on Monday it could accept former President Hissene Habre being sent to Belgium to stand trial after Senegal reversed a decision to extradite the former leader back to Chad.
Kalzeubet Payimi Demubet, Chad’s communications minister, said his government regretted Senegal’s decision to reverse the decision to extradite Habre despite measures offered to guarantee his safety and a fair trial.
“Moreover, the Chadian government does not exclude the hypothesis of Hissene Habre’s transfer to Belgium,” Deubet said.
“What is important for the Chadian government is that the trial should take place so as to render justice to the victims who have waited 20-plus years for justice to be done,” he said.
[Update 2 July 14] AFP:
Chad’s former president Hissene Habre said in an interview published Thursday that he would be willing to appear before an international tribunal to answer charges of atrocities during his 1982-1990 rule.
“We want Chad and Chadians to see justice done, don’t we? I totally agree. I totally agree that we should organise an independent international judicial process, and that all Chadians accused of something appear before this court,” he told the weekly La Gazette.
Habre going to trial would, in my view, be a big deal. And there has been more movement towards a trial in the past week than in the past six months, I would say.