What Hissene Habré’s Trial Says About the Future of the African Union

When President Obama addresses the African Union tomorrow, he will have plenty to say about development, good governance, justice and international cooperation and the promise of African unity upon which the AU was founded.  And on these latter points, the African Union has reached an important milestone just last week when Hissene Habre, one Africa’s most elusive strongmen who ruled Chad between 1982 and 1990, began trial in Dakar, Senegal for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture.

While the instance of a former dictator on trial for such abuses is certainly not unheard of, the political and judicial processes that underpin the Habré case are uniquely unprecedented in international law and African continental affairs. That’s because Hissene Habré, unlike previous heads of state who have been indicted for human rights violations, will remain in Senegal to stand trial in that nation’s courts under the auspices of the African Extraordinary Chambers and the principle of universal jurisdiction. Simply put, universal jurisdiction provides that states can exercise criminal jurisdiction in investigations and prosecutions of individuals for grave international crimes, regardless of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of the accused perpetrator.

Established back in August 2012, the African Extraordinary Chambers emerged from an agreement between Senegal and the African Union as the institution tasked to try the Habré case under this legal framework—but within the Senegalese national court system—as opposed to other mechanisms like the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The trial of Hissene Habré is thus a big moment, not only for seeking justice for the victims of Habré’s rule in Chad, but also for the African Union and its perceived and actual legitimacy as a regional institution. Western human rights observers have eagerly commended the Habré case as a step towards solidifying accountability norms for African leaders in prosecuting their own neighbors for human rights and humanitarian violations. While it has taken fifteen years to finally hear the case, it is this image of a responsive, unified continent that the African Union possesses an interest in cultivating to the international community and amongst its constituent states.

Following the extradition and arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in Britain in 1998 under the principle of universal jurisdiction, human rights organizations, particularly Human Rights Watch, and Habré’s victims began investigations into the potential legal avenues for prosecuting the Chadian leader. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 1,208 individuals died in detention under the Habré dictatorship and over 12,000 individuals were unlawfully detained or tortured. Much of this work was executed by the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), which served as the government’s secret police force and ensured the systematized repression of suspected political “enemies” and dissidents. After a failed attempt to retain Habré under house arrest in his exiled home of Senegal in February 2000, Belgium requested an extradition of Habré in 2006 by the Senegalese government to the International Court of Justice and later initiated the official proceedings application for Belgium v. Senegal in 2009.

Pressured by the Belgium campaign and a growing aversion to Western judicial institutions (by now the African Union was vocally criticizing the International Criminal Court’s seemingly Africa-focus in prosecuting cases), the AU Commission and Senegal agreed to investigate those responsible for international crimes committed in Chad in January 2012. By August, the two parties had established the African Extraordinary Chambers within the courts of Senegal, culminating in the arrest of Hissein Habré in July 2013.

In the coming months, many eyes will be on Dakar to follow how this unprecedented process of justice unfolds. If successfully executed and resulting in a fair decision (and preferably a guilty one), it is ultimately unclear in what ways having prosecuted Habré under such novel terms will shape continental and international laws or the balance of power in administering future human rights investigations.

The Habré case is a somewhat easy one for the AU because of the straightforward and blatant nature of repression in Chad, a reality that is muddied in similarly brutal ongoing conflicts in Africa that possess numerous state and interstate perpetrating actors at the state and militia levels. Consequently, the odds of the case spurring frequently evoked discord amongst countries on claims of biased prosecution of more stable, wealthier African countries against weaker states for political power in the continent are fairly small.

On the other hand, international laws and legal institutions have historically and overwhelmingly preferred indicting human rights violations in Africa more so than in any other region of the world (to date all 9 International Criminal Court Situations involve African countries). This perception has damaged for many critical Africans and allies the possibility and creditability of international laws being implemented in a perceivably fair manner without Western interests.

While the Senegalese court system is administering the trial, the practice of universal jurisdiction inherently possesses the same potential for unequal measures of justice between states who respect its authority to investigate all crimes, anywhere and those who have the power to ignore its credence. Perhaps the real question remains: Is the prosecution of Hissene Habré a sign of African progress and growing creditability of the African Union or is it yet another mechanism for the potential role of Western influence in shaping power structures and political discourses in the continent?

The trial of Hissene Habré will resume in September.