By Aida Grovestins
Reed Brody is a human rights activist and lawyer from Brooklyn, New York. He is counsel and spokesman for Human Rights Watch, which is one of the driving forces behind the historic trial of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré before the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal for crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes. Brody has been working for the past 16 years with Habré’s victims to help them bring him to court.
This struggle has led to what is the first universal jurisdiction case to proceed to trial in Africa. The trial began on 20 July in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. Many of the alleged victims who have campaigned for this trial have come to testify. In our series “My Justice”, Reed Brody speaks about his life and the struggle to bring Hissène Habré to justice.
“Justice means that everybody is entitled to dignity, that the lives of people fleeing Iraq and Syria for a better life are as important as a postman in Holland or a school teacher in New York. It means that the life of Souleymane Guengueng, a victim of Hissène Habré’s regime, is as important as Habré’s life. I think that justice is a way of affirming that principle.
“My father was a survivor of German work camps in Eastern Europe. My mother was an inner school teacher. I grew up in an all-black neighbourhood in Brooklyn. When I was 14, I started working for peace and going around my neighbourhood, working for reform candidates in local elections. I was a leader in the Vietnam anti-war movement and the president of the student government. It was always clear that my life was going to be about social justice. I chose a career in law because I felt it would offer many opportunities to bring about social change.
The start of Brody’s career in human rights work
“I started human rights work in Central America. My first major work was uncovering atrocities committed by the US-backed contras in Nicaragua in 1984/85. My report was on the front page of the New York Times and earned me a personal attack from President Ronald Reagan, who called me a Sandinista ‘sympathiser’.
“After that, I worked on the International Commission of Jurists, for the United Nations, for the government of Haïti. I have been expelled from Indonesian-occupied East Timor. I have done work on Tibet. I have been with the UN in El Salvador and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since1998, I have been a spokesman for Human Rights Watch but also working to try to bring to justice the perpetrators of atrocities.
The arrest of Augusto Pinochet
“When the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 on a warrant from Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón for crimes allegedly committed in Chile, we immediately realised that this could be a turning point in human rights enforcement. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were admitted to the British courts as Pinochet challenged his arrest, saying that as a former head of state, he couldn’t be arrested. I spent eight months in London working on this case. When the House of Lords ruled that Pinochet could be arrested and extradited anywhere in the world despite his status of former head of state, we realised that we had this tool to bring to justice people who seemed out of the reach of their victims. That case really opened up a whole new world of possibilities for victims and NGOs. Since then we have tried to expand on that to help victims pursue other Pinochets around the world.
“What the Pinochet case showed us is that you need to create the political conditions for the governments involved to make a prosecution like this work. Dictators don’t just walk into court. The Spanish public was very strongly behind the Chilean victims. They knew who Pinochet was. There were a lot of Chilean refugees in Spain. In England where he was arrested Tony Blair had just come into power. Under Margaret Thatcher, he wouldn’t have been arrested.
Creating the ‘right conditions’ to get Hissène Habré arrested
“When we were in the post-Pinochet euphoria, I was approached by Delphine Djiraïbé, a Chadian attorney and prominent human rights lawyer. She said ‘we have our Pinochet’, and that was Hissène Habré. What was particularly interesting about the Habré case was that it was here in Africa. It wasn’t just another case of Belgium or Spain or England pursuing a Third World dictator. This could be a case of Africa pursuing an African dictator and that made it immediately more interesting to us. And thanks to Delphine, we made the connection to the Chadian victims’ associations.
“It took us 16 years to create the right political conditions to bring Habré to justice. Habré was arrested 15 years ago, and we couldn’t get him to trial then. We tried a number of other cases in the meantime. We tried, together with South African NGOs, to get the former Ethiopian president Mengistu Haile Marian, who was visiting South Africa, to trial. We tried to get Saddam Hussein’s right-hand man arrested when he visited Austria for medical care. Also, there was former Ugandan president Idi Amin while he was in Saudi Arabia and a Peruvian torturer in the United States. In each case, the respective government just decided to let the person go because it was too costly politically and diplomatically to do anything.
“In the meantime, I had been working on many other cases for Human Rights Watch. I wrote a major report bringing up the legal case for holding George Bush accountable for torture and war crimes during the War on Terror. But during the last three years, I have basically only worked on the Habré case.
“A case like this is hugely expensive. And Human Rights Watch’s most consistent funder is Oxfam Novib from the Netherlands, which have been our most enduring supporter from the beginning.
Turning victims into human rights activists
“It’s also very important to work with a team – to work in partnership with the victims and with national NGOs. I mean, we are a team: the victims from Chad, the activists from Chad and then international people like me. The victims have become the real architects of this effort. Everybody who has been covering the case of Habré knows about the victims – Souleymane Guengueng and Clément Abaifouta – and their lawyer Jaqueline Moudeina. It means investing in helping the victims transform themselves into human rights activists so that they can speak about the case. They don’t need me or somebody else to mediate. And it also means listening to what they care about – not just what we care about – things like getting medical care and financial assistance for people.
“The only reason people are interested in this case is because they can look the Chadian victims in the eye. Clément Abaifouta has been to Senegal at least 25 times to plead his case. He met President Macky Sall even when he was still in the opposition. The person who has made the most difference here in Senegal is Abdourahmane Gueye, the Senegalese victim who is just like an average Senegalese guy. He can talk in the local Senegalese language and say on TV ‘this is what happened to me. This is real.’
Getting justice in Chad too
“Apart from bringing Hissène Habré to justice, the victims’ association wants justice back in Chad. Earlier this year, 21 of Habré’s henchmen were convicted in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. The Criminal Court ordered as well that the Chadian government and the convicted persons pay €113,5 million in reparations to over 7.000 victims, that a monument be created for the victims and the former headquarters of the political police, the DDS, be turned into a museum. So far, the teamwork with the victims has been a very fruitful partnership from a strategic, emotional and political standpoint.
“The court’s verdict in Chad is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has been the norm for so long. The case in Chad had a lot more of a direct impact on the population of Chad than the case here in Senegal has. Here the court is empty. There the court was full.
What makes the Habré case different from other cases of international justice
“I think the fact that the victims are the architects makes it very different from most of the cases that come up in The Hague or in Arusha, where usually it is the prosecutor or the Security Council that is really the driving force behind the case. In this case and the cases of former dictators Pinochet and Ríos Montt in Guatemala, it is really the victims and the NGOs.
“When Habré says ‘I am being prosecuted by the imperialists’, it’s victims like Souleymane Guengueng who are saying: ‘No, wait a minute. You put me in jail. You tortured me. I am not an imperialist. I am seeking justice.’ The fact that the victims speak for themselves gives a much larger meaning to the Habré case.
The cases at the ICC are very important parts of the fight against impunity, but this case in Dakar is not only a fight against impunity. It is also about civil society organising itself and a former African leader being tried in Africa. This makes it doubly important.
“I sit here every day in the court. And at least one time per day I look at him and I think ‘my God we did it’. You know, nobody thought we could do it and we did it. It’s personally very satisfying for me, let alone for the victims.”
Lead image: Reed Brody (Photo: Aida Grovestins/Justice Hub)