Hybrid Justice for Heads of State? The Habré Trial and the Norms of African Sovereign Immunity

How have hybrid courts dealt with the question of head of state immunity and how might they in the future? In this latest contribution in our ongoing symposium on Hybrid Justice, Kerstin Carlson joins JiC to explore these questions in the context of the trial of Hissène Habré and its aftermath. Kerstin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Law at the University of Southern Denmark. She is also affiliated with The American University of Paris and iCourts at the University of Copenhagen. She is the author of Model(ing) Justice: Perfecting the Promise of International Criminal Law (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2018).

(Photo: Jean-Louis Atlan / Sygma / Corbis)

There is an ongoing disagreement in international criminal law regarding sovereign immunity. International humanitarian law takes the possibility of challenging impunity as a central element of its mandate, in part because of the fundamental norm of rule of law practice that none is above the law and in part because leaders are those who arguably bear the greatest responsibility for the types of collective harms international humanitarian law would criminalize. Thus international criminal law as practiced by ad hoc tribunals and the International Criminal Court promises that sovereigns are not immune from prosecution for atrocity crimes, and suggests that violations of international humanitarian law by those in positions of power are more worthy of prosecution that the infractions of low level offenders. This norm does not distinguish between sitting and former heads of state.

At the same time, there has been significant pushback, especially across Africa, over the prosecution of sitting leaders. This pushback has arisen in many forms, with perhaps the most public being the refusal of South Africa and others to comply with the ICC’s open arrest warrant against Sudan’s president Al-Bashir. More subtle, but no less significant, are examples such as amendments to the Malabo Protocol, the guiding document of the African Union’s proposed African Court of Justice and Human Rights, which explicitly grant sitting heads of state immunity from prosecution (but also references norms that would limit sovereigns to two terms in office, thereby in principle making them available for prosecution when they leave office). While this court is far from the 15 ratifications required to make it operational, Kenya has promised to join Uganda and ratify the proposed court by March 15 2018.

In this contested environment, the recent prosecution and conviction of former Chadian head of state Hissène Habré by an ad hoc, hybrid tribunal in Senegal was momentous. The Chambres Africaines Extraordinaires (CAE), a cooperative effort supported by western governments, the African Union, Chad and Senegal, was a temporary tribunal nestled in Senegal’s local juridical architecture that applied international criminal law to try Habré. The outcome of a 25-year saga by Chadian victims groups and international NGOs to bring Habré to justice, the CAE was novel in several ways. It was the first court set up in one country to try the leader of another, and the first African application of universal jurisdiction, a doctrine enabling any judge in any court to consider commissions of internationally recognized crimes. Despite these characteristics, the CAE’s greatest claim seems to be that it is an African institution that successfully prosecuted and convicted a former head of state. Other such attempts have always been the purview of internationally governed institutions such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone or the International Criminal Court.

The experience of the Habré process leads to the question: what does the trial of the former Chadian President tell us about current resistance to sovereign impunity on the African continent? 

The answer is not entirely clear. Hissène Habré fled Chad for Dakar in 1990, ousted from power by collaborator-turned-rival Idriss Dèby. From the very beginning of his reign, Déby sought to punish Habré for crimes committed during his regime, although many of these crimes involve actions in which Déby was involved in a leadership role, raising questions of his own criminal responsibility. Déby’s long-voiced desire for “justice,” a quest that is headlined by his pursuit of Habré, has lost whatever veneer of credibility it might once have had. Over the 28 years Déby has remained in office refusing to cede power, he has amassed a personal fortune that ranks him as Africa’s 9th richest president, although Chad is still one of the world’s poorest countries. Déby governs much as Habré did, including using many of the same individuals as secret police. During the Habré investigation, as the inquiries related to Habré’s trial pushed deeper towards Chad’s present power structure, Déby ceased cooperating, cancelling a fifth investigative trip to the country. Moreover, after the CAE became operational, Chad staged a series of trials of Habré-era collaborators, including three who were sought by the CAE: Mahamat Djibrine “El Djonto”, Saleh Younouss and Zakaria Berdei. Although convicted by the Chadian court, their trial rendered these defendants out of reach to the CAE, and thus is credibly understood as a challenge and not a collaboration with rendering justice. Concerns remain that these defendants will simply be released now that the Habré process has been concluded.

The Senegalese judicial apparatus orchestrated impressive achievements in trying the former leader; Habré was apprehended, tried, and sentenced without major incident, with no dead or suddenly and inexplicably recanting witnesses. He is presently serving a life sentence (albeit under a regime rather infamous for its capacity to grant pardons). Yet given that Habré ultimately sat in the dock alone, without his co-indictees and without implicating Chad’s current president-for-life Idriss Déby, there is little to suggest that the Habré experience would be repeatable, in Senegal or elsewhere, against a leader with more live political clout. There has been no change in attitude with regards to pushing for Head of State immunity at the ICC or under Malabo. Moreover, many heads of state with similar records aren’t facing prosecution. Thus the Habré trial must be seen as inconclusive with regards the current status of sovereign impunity in Africa.

One bright spot on the horizon, however, may be found in Senegal’s neighbor, The Gambia, where the repressive strongman Yahya Jammeh, was recently ousted from power. Speaking at a conference revisiting the Habré trial in Dakar last month, Gambian Minister of Justice, Abubacarr M. Tambadou, praised the CAE’s work in terms of its challenge to sovereign immunity as “laudable”, and said that The Gambia hoped to follow Senegal, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone in prosecuting leaders who violate human rights. At present, Gambian efforts consist of a truth and reconciliation commission to consider Jammeh’s abuses. The future will show how deeply such efforts effectuate meaningful structural reform, a central goal of removing sovereign immunity from prosecution.

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About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is the the Deputy Director of the Wayamo Foundation and a Fellow based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016). The views posted on this blog do not necessarily represent those of the Wayamo Foundation.
This entry was posted in Chad, Chambres Africaines Extraordinaires (CAE), Hissène Habré, Hybrid Courts, Hybrid Justice Symposium, Senegal. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Hybrid Justice for Heads of State? The Habré Trial and the Norms of African Sovereign Immunity

  1. el roam says:

    Thanks for that post , the respectable author of the post , states that :

    International humanitarian law takes the possibility of challenging impunity as a central element of its mandate, in part because of the fundamental norm of rule of law practice that none is above the law and in part because leaders are those who arguably bear the greatest responsibility for the types of collective harms international humanitarian law would criminalize.

    End of quotation :

    Just worth to add , two additional major arguments :

    First , in more substantial terms : immunity is meant for fulfilling function . Committing atrocities , can’t in no way be integral part of duties of head of state and other officials . That is the basis of the philosophy of national exhaustion in fact : whatsoever , the official or head of state , have violated the law of their own state . For , committing genocide for example , can’t be in no way , permitted as lawful act in no way so by domestic law.

    Second , and in more formal perspective : immunity granted to an official or head of state , is granted by the International community ( Vienna convention ). It is not granted by a decision of the sovereign state itself , but , only the recognition of the International community grants it in fact . As such , and since , atrocities are a matter of the International community as a whole , what has been granted , should be taken off , and immunity is stripped off , by the same International community that has granted it .

    Thanks

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