Baltasar Garzón on universal jurisdiction and the Habré trial

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Friday, November 6, 2015 - 09:14

By Aida Grovestins

Former Spanish investigative magistrate Baltasar Garzón visited the trial last month of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré before the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) in Senegal. Habré, nicknamed the ‘African Pinochet’, is accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture committed during his rule between 1983 and 1990.

Garzón made headlines around the world in 1998 when he ordered the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London. It was the first time that a former head of state travelling on a diplomatic passport had been arrested on the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’. In our series "My Justice", Garzón talks about his approach. His advocacy of this doctrine for crimes against humanity has inspired many people worldwide, including survivors of Habré’s regime. 

“I came to Dakar for the historic trial against Hissène Habré. FIBGAR, the Human Rights Foundation for Universal Justice, of which I am president, was present at the opening of the trial in July. Since then, we have been following the proceedings, and now I'm here to support the existing court and Habré’s alleged victims.
“The precedent that is created with the EAC in Senegal is very important because here the doctrine of universal justice comes together with that of international criminal justice. The African Union created the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) to pursue former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for crimes against humanity in Senegal. Habré has been living in exile in Dakar since he was ousted in 1990. The EAC works within the Senegalese court system. It is an interesting model. I had the opportunity to attend two sessions of the trial against Habré.

Credibility of the Extraordinary African Chambers

“The daily operation and the final verdict in the trial of Hissène Habré will determine its credibility. From what I saw in court, one of the requirements of universal justice is being accomplished. This is the publication of debates, not only in court but also via social media. Further, the trial of Hissène Habré knows no restriction of the rights of the defence or civil parties. It is an independent tribunal, and the rights of the defence are fully guaranteed. There is also a possibility of reparation of justice for victims through universal jurisdiction. This is fundamental. The only thing we can call for is the acceleration of the trial, so that decisions are not delayed indefinitely and that the rights of the alleged victims are not violated.
“My perception of the trial is that it’s emotionally very intense. On the one hand, we see the alleged actor of the crimes who plays innocent. On the other hand, we see as well the victims who are demanding justice under very difficult circumstances. They are participating before an independent tribunal. We can say that the perseverance of the victims and human rights organisations is bearing its fruit in the trial against Hissène Habré.

The principle of universal jurisdiction 

“It is really hard to convince governments in the case of crimes against humanity to see it as an obligation to do justice. There is always a sort of reluctance by states to prosecute. They often protect the ones who committed these crimes. Once in a while, there are exceptions. So it’s the work of victims, human rights activists and organisations that succeed in getting someone to trial. 
“When we started to investigate the cases of the dictators of Chile and Argentina in 1996, there was nobody in Spain who understood what we wanted to achieve. Only a small group of lawyers and victims’ organisations were behind us and supported our initiative. In front of us, we had the whole state apparatus. But, little by little, the perception changed. Obviously the arrest of Pinochet had the biggest impact on the understanding of the principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’. 

Habré's attitude in court

"I feel that what the defence lawyer is trying to do is to destroy the credibility of the witnesses and victims, trying to cut the link between the facts that were allegedly committed under Habré’s direct rule and Habré himself. I saw as well that the defence is trying to confuse the victims, but what's important is that Hissène Habré has legal defence and that makes the trial credible. The fact that Habré does not participate is part of his right not to recognise the court. But this court is absolutely legitimate. The court is judging the intellectual responsibility of Hissène Habré for the crimes that were committed. 
“Habré's attitude leaves the impression that dictators are very brave when they are in power and cowards when they are no longer in power. It is quite within his rights, but it's a lack of respect and courage towards the victims who will not get answers to their claims. Unfortunately, this will result in further victimisation.
“I will give an example of what we did in the case of Pinochet. We started to describe the nature of the dictatorship to show how the power was organised and distributed. Who was responsible? Who responded directly to the president? Was the repression selective or generalised? All these things can’t be isolated from one another because there has to be a pyramid structure. The power in a dictatorship isn’t shared. It is only shared, for example, in a triumvirate at the top. In a pyramid structure like this one, cases of displacement or disappearance of people, torture or the conditions in the prisons could not have eluded the head of state. Therefore, a dictator can never say that he didn’t know what happened in his country. In the case of Chad, nothing happened without Hissène Habré knowing about it. The nature of a dictatorship doesn’t allow it. 

The time has come for Africans to judge their own leaders

“When the defence lawyers asked one of the witnesses, 'how can you accuse a former head of state of these crimes?', the witness replied serenely that he had suffered arbitrary imprisonment and other violations. Then he added, ‘I can say it because Hissène Habré is a citizen like me. We are equal before the law.’ The most interesting thing for me was to see that the victims have a strength that comes from reason, that the victims aren't looking for revenge. They are demanding law enforcement before an independent court. To witness this is the best reward that I - a judge, a human rights activist who has been working for 18 years for universal justice - can receive. 
“The time has come for Africans to judge their own leaders who are responsible for war crimes, rather than take them to the International Criminal Court in The Hague."
Lead image: Baltasar Garzón (Photo: FIBGAR)

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