Senegal, AU launch “universal jurisdiction” prosecution of ex-Chad dictator

Chad’s brutal ex-dictator Hissène Habré will stand trial for war crimes, torture, and crimes against humanity in a landmark trial in Senegal. This is huge news if it goes forward because the Senegal trial — undertaken with African Union backing — and will be the African continent’s first-ever use of “universal jurisdiction.”

Universal jurisdiction is a controversial doctrine that allows countries to prosecute people they arrest for significant crimes of mass violence and human rights abuses committed in other places, even without direct interests of or crimes against the prosecuting country. It has been used most heavily by Spain (full story➚).

Habré, who ruled from 1982 until the 1990 coup that brought incumbent President Idriss Déby to power, has been in Senegal since his fall from power. He was placed under house arrest in 2005 and then formally taken to jail in 2013 ahead of the now-upcoming trial. He has been sought by various jurisdictions, including Chad, for his 1980s crimes — which include hundreds if not tens of thousands of political killings and tens or hundreds of thousands of torture victims — but until now he has avoided prosecution.

Universal jurisdiction efforts against him began as far back as 2000. Senegal was initially unsure whether it could apply universal jurisdiction in its domestic courts, but the country is a firm supporter of international justice as a general principle, having been the first country to ratify the creation of the International Criminal Court.

Throughout Habré’s rule he received paramilitary assistance from the United States (via the CIA) as part of Chad’s on-again-off-again war with Libya’s Qaddafi regime. Besides his crimes again humanity, Habré was most notable on the international stage, especially in retrospect, for his pioneering use of Toyota pickup trucks with improvised gun-mounts for highly-mobile desert combat, a tactic he used against the Libyan Army’s tanks to surprisingly strong effect. This tactic’s late 1980s use in the war with Libya may well have influenced the use of pickup trucks with improvised gun mounts in Libya’s 2011 Revolution against Qaddafi, which may have then spread via Libyan fighters to ISIS (and other insurgent groups) in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

There was extensive (albeit secret) U.S. panic when Habré fell from power that CIA-delivered heavy weapons, including the same type of anti-air equipment as what they were delivering to Afghanistan at the same time, might fall into the hands of Qaddafi, who at that point had already brought down the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie.

Pictured: Chadian President Hissène Habré and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1987. (Ronald Reagan Library)

Pictured: Chadian President Hissène Habré and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in June 1987. (Ronald Reagan Library)

Saving Grace: Father Bernard Kinvi of Central African Republic

The story of a Catholic priest, Father Bernard Kinvi, who protected Muslim civilians in Central African Republic from extremist Christian militias during the country’s reciprocal genocide, from late 2013 into early 2014, in its ongoing conflict:

At one point, 1,500 Muslims were living under the protection of a man whose only sources of power were his faith and the black cassock with a large red cross on the chest that he wears as a member of the Camillian order.
From mid-January to April, Kinvi barely slept, terrified that if he closed his eyes the militia would fulfill their threats to murder all the Muslims in the mission. But bit-by-bit, lorry load by lorry load, the priest started to get the Muslims out of the area and over the border into Cameroon.

In contrast, French “peacekeepers” literally stood and watched Muslims being hacked to death in front of them by Christian extremists. Actual rescue missions, as in Rwanda in 1994, had to be staged by African peacekeepers.

Ten years from now, everyone is going to be asking why the world did nothing there. And there will be no good explanations or excuses.

Alleged genocide inciter may incite his way out of trial

Vojislav Seselj has been on trial at The Hague since 2003, representing himself against charges of inciting fellow Serb nationalists to commit war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia during the 1990s Balkan Wars. Now he has cancer, and they’re going to consider sending him back to Serbia, of all places, as if no other countries — including the Netherlands, where he’s on trial — have cancer treatment. Why? Because this (alleged) genocide-inciting dude is literally so obnoxious, insufferable, and dangerous on trial (over the course of eleven years!) that they might just prefer to send him home to die rather than continue putting up with him … and probably not reach justice anyway in time.

He’s been such a headache and awful monster during the trial — repeatedly convicted of contempt of court and continually publishing classified court documents to expose the identities of key witnesses — that his behavior might force the international court system to completely rethink how it conducts trials for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other similar cases. It’s quite possibly more harmful to keep going with his trial than to suspend it.

Incitement trials, I suspect, are basically asking for insufferable grandstanding under the current system. If someone has the wherewithal to inspire people through the power of words to go kill members of a rival sect they’re probably pretty talented at haranguing and badgering everyone in the courtroom for a decade and generally putting on a big show about being victimized.

Those who intervened

It is the 20th anniversary right now of the start of the Rwandan Genocide. In Yugoslavia, in the same time span, there were many massacres and ethnic purges occurring as well, as the country continued to disintegrate over the the 1990s. (Next year will be the anniversary of the worst European massacre in postwar history.) There have been a number of compelling and important perspectives and accounts surfacing now, two decades later, from both episodes.

In Rwanda, there was very little outside intervention until the very end, when it was already over. In Bosnia and the wider Yugoslav conflict, there was some intervention off and on by outside powers to try to halt the violence, but it was generally too little too late. Certainly much of the external narrative focuses on those who failed to stand up — inside and outside the countries — to protect the innocent civilians. I think that’s important and justified, in that we should not forget and must do better. But it’s also important to remember and honor those who did intervene in these crises, at great personal risk — because their stories are the ones that remind us we could have and should have helped.

Here are two accounts I’ve read this week that I wanted to highlight. I’ve pulled just one paragraph from each, to encourage you to read the full articles.


Background: As the cowardly UN Security Council voted to start pulling hundreds of peacekeepers out of Rwanda during the genocide, a Ghanaian general decided on his own (for which he would be scolded by his president later) that he would not withdraw his last 454 troops from the country. They were young, inexperienced, and barely armed. The militias had already brazenly executed Belgian peacekeeping troops with impunity. And still the Ghanaians stayed. They are credited with saving as many as 30,000 lives, often simply by refusing to move out of the way and talking and talking until the militiamen left in frustration. There were only 5 casualties.

Excerpt from “Ghana peacekeepers remember Rwanda’s genocide” by Chris Stein for Al Jazeera:

The colonel demanded that they call their commanders, going back and forth with the leaders of the assembled mob for hours. The militiamen would threaten him with grenades, going so far as to pull out their pins in front of his face. [Col.] Yaache would pick the pins up off the ground and put them back in the grenades himself.


“I Found the Man Who Saved My Family From a Balkan Death Camp” by Kenan Trebinčević for Slate.


I realized that Pero never had the power to stop the massacres. Yet he’d carry our murdered citizens on his conscience. I could never forget: He saved my family. I decided he was a noble man trapped in a depravity he didn’t ask for. While I was a bilingual world traveler nearly able to move on, history held him hostage, keeping him from rest. I wondered for the first time if he’d suffered more than I did.

US diplomacy runs into foreign politics

Here’s a good read. “Will India’s Next Leader Be Banned From America?”

My Summary: In 2005, the US State Department banned a state-level Indian politician, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, from coming to the United States due to his alleged role in genocidal activities against Muslims (though investigations in India have never officially tied him to them) during the February 2002 riots in Gujarat. State figured it would be a symbolic denunciation with few likely consequences down the road.

Fast forward to present and now he is a national leader of the main opposition party (the Hindu nationalist BJP) and is widely anticipated to cruise into the office of prime minister next year. Now, the State Department is on the fence about what to do, particularly since he hasn’t been elected yet. Lifting the ban now would be seen as an endorsement or interference. Lifting it after he wins (if indeed he does) would be embarrassing and make the State Department look like it was bending the rules.

Afghanistan 1978-79, unearthed

Dutch crimes-against-humanity investigators have published a list of 5,000 names of Afghans (out of tens of thousands) summarily executed by the Communist government between their April 1978 coup and the December 1979 Soviet invasion. The wave of executions was launched in response to a massive rebellion against the new government, in which 40,000 troops defected to the jihadists and rebels. Many of the victims of this Terror were given one-word charges, according to the documents, and buried alive in mass graves, according to soldiers who took part. The release of the names has provoked a huge reaction (of many emotions) this month, particularly since many senior ex-Communists are in the current government.