1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Opinion: Habre trial not sending strong enough signal

Koepp Dirke Kommentarbild App
Dirke Köpp
July 20, 2015

Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre is facing trial at a special tribunal in Senegal. That's good, says DW's Dirke Köpp - but it's not enough.

Hissene Habre . AFP PHOTO / STRINGER
Image: picture-alliance/AFP/Stringer

The trial of Hissene Habre has got everyone waxing lyrical about a "turning point in the fight against impunity," and stressing how important it is that crimes committed by African leaders are atoned for. They say it sends an important signal to the continent's current presidents playing fast and loose with concepts such as democracy and human rights. They praise the fact that victims of his dictatorship are finally getting justice. That is all true. And yet, the question remains: Is it enough? And the answer is, no.

No, it is not good enough to talk of justice after the fact. Hissene Habre is 72 years old. His reign of terror in Chad ended 25 years ago (1982-1990). He is accused of tens of thousands of cases of torture and is said to be responsible for the death of 40,000 people. For eight years, his secret police spread fear and terror.

But he's been facing trial in Senegal for his crimes only since Monday (20.7.2015). That makes him the first (former) African leader to be prosecuted in Africa. He's appearing before a special tribunal created for him by Senegal and the African Union; the cost is also being borne by European countries. It's a whole new dimension.

But what happened in the 25 years since the end of Habre's dictatorship and the first day of the tribunal? And what about the eight years that he presided over Chad? Did no one see what was happening in the country? Or were other things more important? These are the questions that also have to be asked.

Living in peace

For more than 22 years, Habre had been living peacefully in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. To his neighbors, he was a quiet, benevolent Muslim with a wife and children. For many years, the Senegalese government did nothing. The state was aware of his presence, just as other African countries know which former dictators are living within their borders. Habré was only arrested two years ago - even though Belgium issued an international arrest warrant for him in 2005.

Koepp Dirke Kommentarbild App
Dirke Köpp is head of the French service at DW

France and the United States should also be questioned about which dubious dictators they are supporting. Because during his terrible presidency, Habré was always sure of support from Paris and Washington. They saw in him a willing partner in the fight against Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar al-Gadhafi and his ambition to extend his influence over all of Africa. Only when they could no longer close their eyes to the brutality and human rights violations of the Habré regime did they drop the dictator in 1990.

But France's new protégé, Idriss Deby - who led a coup against a weakened Habre and has now been the president of Chad for a quarter of a century - is no better than his predecessor. He also stands accused of countless human rights violations. But he is still seen as an important ally in the region, this time against Islamism – and that is taking priority over the interests of Chad's people.

This is not an argument against the tribunal. It's high time that Habre be called to account before a court. But his trial alone is not enough of a signal to African leaders, or indeed leaders of any nation who abuse their power and expect impunity. For that, every state in the international community needs to act less in its own interest, and exhibit less opportunism.

Have something to add? Let us know in the comments below.

Skip next section Explore more