Outreach in the Hissène Habré trial was an exercise in winning hearts and minds
By Brian Obara
Some things are impossible until they happen. Hissène Habré, the former Chadian dictator, evaded justice for almost three decades. Many of his victims had lost hope that he would ever be brought to justice let alone that it could happen on African soil. But the impossible did happen and Habré will now spend the rest of his natural life in a Senegalese jail thanks to a sentence passed by the Extraordinary African Chambers or Chambres Africaines Extraordinaires (CAE).
Franck Petit, an accomplished communication expert, was the team leader of the Outreach Consortium that was charged with helping relay the trial to a (mostly untrusting) audience in Chad. Petit recently sat down for an interview with Justice Hub to explain how he and his team helped win sceptical Chadians over, the lessons he learnt in the process and why he thinks reparations in international justice trials are a dicey topic worth avoiding altogether.
What was the most interesting aspect of your work with the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal
The most interesting aspect was to inform the people that were most invested in the process, that is the Chadian people, about what was going on in Dakar, 2000km away from their country where former dictator Hissène Habré was being tried. I think the most important thing was to try to find ways for people to see images, to debate about the trial, ask questions and to be able to talk about their worries and make sure those worries would be heard by the people at the court in Dakar.
What can other organizations learn from how the Extraordinary African Chambers does outreach?
The name of the Court kind of explains its work in a nutshell because it’s the “Extraordinary African Chambers”. Ordinarily, we don't try former heads of state in Africa or anywhere else in the world. It's a very rare thing and a very difficult thing to achieve.
So in a sense, yes, it is an example of what could be done. But, is it a model that could be replicated elsewhere? That's another issue. We have to wait a bit and to see if the African Union made an exception in Habre’s case or if instead, it has made the first step towards accountability for heads of state in Africa.
The main innovation of the Extraordinary African Chambers was to fully externalise the outreach. This meant delegating outreach work to the many organisations that have credibility on the ground, in Chad, in Senegal and on the international level. There were three organisations working together as a unit known as the Outreach Consortium. RCN Justice & Démocratie based in Belgium took care of things at the international level while Magi Communication, based in Ndjamena, handled Chad, while the Dakar-based Primum Africa Consulting was responsible for outreach in Senegal.
The consortium of these three organisations was implementing the program with the tribunal organisation in Chad, the Senegalese organisation in Senegal and the international NGO at an international level was also doing the backstopping of projects and everything dealing with financial reports. This guaranteed that the program really went well.
So the combination of the three organisations was very effective and I don't think it would be possible for one of the three organisations alone to execute the whole project singlehandedly and have the same results as we did.
There was a complete split between the institutional communication in Senegal and the outreach people who were in charge of going closer to the population, answering their questions, showing images and creating a sense of dialogue with the court. This had never been done before. Also, it was the first time in the history of international justice that the court from the very start gave so much importance to outreach by setting aside 10% of the budget.
You have spoken to a lot of victims about the Habré trial and their feelings towards it. What would say is their general impression?
I would say the victims went through three stages before they absorbed the reality that Habre had been put on trial. First was sheer disbelief that the Hissène Habré trial would even happen. They were told several times that complaints were filed in Dakar, in Brussels and with the ICJ (the International Court of Justice) and nothing happened during the next 25 years. For the victims and for the entire population of Chad, the fact that the Extraordinary African Chambers was created was not enough for them to trust the court. There was a lot of disbelief, suspicion, and fear of manipulation from the international community.
The second stage, relief, came a few months or maybe one year after the trial started. Victims got to see images of Hissène Habré in all white and dark glasses being carried out by soldiers. When we showed the victims the images one month later everything changed. The mistrust melted away. They were seeing Hissène Habré, the most powerful guy they had seen in their lives, being carried like a spoilt kid. The lion had become a kid. We heard such expressions of surprise every time. So the victims started to believe in the fact this is going to happen, that they will see justice.
But there were some that were still suspicious. They thought that maybe Habré would die during the trial or maybe that it was all just a show. The images and videos from the trial were very important to counteract these suspicious. These images and videos coming through the public channel and being relayed to the victims and the Chadian public through the outreach project carried also testimonies from the victims about Habré’s jails, executions, torture and rapes. Four women testified about rape in the open without any mask. It was very courageous and very important for the people in Chad to hear such kinds of testimonies. The trial became a big event for the Chadian people.
The third stage of victim’s impressions of the Habré trial came after his conviction and sentencing to life imprisonment. Victims feel happy and vindicated. They are happy with the fact that Hissène Habré was tried and convicted, even if he didn't speak and was covered up in glasses and turban throughout the trial. This is a part of history now that people will always recall.
There has been some criticism that the EAC burned through its budget with the trial of Habré and left precious little funds for reparations for victims. Is any of this true?
I don't think we can say that because this the first time in the history of international justice that we have seen a court running on such a low budget. The court used 8.5 million euros in four years total. The budget that was defined at the very start was the same at the end which is something unusual in international justice. Usually, you have the first budget then additional funds are sought to meet unexpected expenses.
An amount of money was given at the very start and rest was divided across several funding stages but the original budget we kept to and nothing extra was added. It means, more or less, that the EAC spent in four years the equivalent of the ICC’s one-month budget which is very cheap. We've never seen that in the history of international justice.
But there is a problem because the amount of reparations that have been granted by the court is much higher than the assets of Hissène Habré. Reparations were not included in the budget of the court because we cannot bet on the guilt of the accused from the start. But there is a trust fund now which in charge of tracking the money of Hissène Habré, raising more money from the African Union states, individuals and then distributing it to the victims.
Reparations are always a complex and difficult issue in international justice. Just as you can’t put everyone on trial, you can’t repair all the harm done to victims. It is an impossibility. As a personal stand, I think a court should say at the very start that there won’t be financial reparations because it can’t be anything but unfair at the end.
Photos: © Outreach Consortium on the Extraordinary African Chambers