The New York Times, 11.2.00
Editorial: An African Pinochet
Even as British courts ponder whether the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet should be excused from trial in Spain on human rights charges because he is medically unfit, the enduring legacy of his case has been demonstrated on another continent. Last week a Senegalese court indicted the exiled former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, on torture charges. It was the first time that a former African head of state had been charged with human rights violations by a court in another country, and it opens a welcome new chapter in the evolution of international criminal law.
The case against Mr. Habré grew out of a criminal complaint filed by international human rights groups and Chadian survivors of torture. It represents the first application of the most important legal precedents established in the Pinochet case, namely that former heads of state no longer enjoy impunity for crimes against humanity, and that they can be brought to trial in any country on the basis of "universal jurisdiction" for such crimes. The court placed Mr. Habré under house arrest in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, where he has lived since he was ousted from power in 1990. A trial could begin later this year.
During Mr. Habré's eight-year rule in Chad, his notorious secret police killed thousands of opponents -- the exact number is still unknown -- and tortured many more. The United States helped install Mr. Habré in power and supported him through much of his rule as a buffer against the Libyan leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi. Mr. Habré was finally removed from office by the current president of Chad, Idriss Déby.
Mr. Habré is but one of several exiled tyrants who, under the Pinochet precedent, could one day face justice. Idi Amin of Uganda is in Saudi Arabia. His less notorious but no less wanton successor, Milton Obote, is in Zambia. Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner is in Brazil. Haiti's Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier is in France. The former Ethiopian tyrant Mengistu Haile Mariam is in Zimbabwe.
It is particularly welcome that an African dictator will be tried in Africa. No continent has paid more dearly than Africa for the absence of legitimate institutions of law and accountability and a resulting culture of impunity. Ideally, Mr. Habré would be tried in Chad itself, but the government of Mr. Déby, replete with former allies of Mr. Habré and with a record of its own abuses, has made no effort to bring its former dictator to trial. Senegal is one of the few countries in Africa that has a credible independent judiciary.
This case will be another test of the
ability of the world to fashion an effective system of accountability
for mass atrocities. Considerable progress has been made over the
last decade with the establishment of international criminal
tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, an agreement to
establish a permanent International Criminal Court and the
indictments of General Pinochet and Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.
But bringing people to trial is harder than indicting them. That is
why the trial of Mr. Habré will be so important.