Side Events: 16th Assembly of States Parties | Victims of Hissène Habré: the struggle for reparations continues

By Kirsten Lavery, PILPG Program Manager

On December 7, 2017, the government of Switzerland, Human Rights Watch, and REDRESS convened an event entitled “Victims of Hissène Habré: the struggle for reparations continues” in the sidelines of the ASP Meetings of the ICC. In 2016, Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad, was convicted by the Extraordinary African Chambers (CAE) in Senegal for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture. The Habré trial has rightly been hailed as a victory for all those that fought for justice, particularly the victims that called for justice for over 20 years. The Habré trial was also a victory for the African continent as an example of complimentary jurisdiction and the demonstration of the ability of Africa to deliver justice for Africans on the continent. The trial included the active participation of victims, including many women who broke taboos in Chad to testify openly regarding their experiences as sex slaves during the Habré regime. In 2017, the CAE confirmed Habré’s verdict and ordered Habré to pay roughly $150 million in compensation to his victims. The CAE located and froze less than $1 million in assets and mandated that the African Union establish an AU Trust Fund to locate and seize additional assets. This Trust Fund has yet to be established and victims have not yet received reparations.

The event focused on considering whether equitable justice can be achieved without the effective implementation of reparations. Following introductory remarks and a screening of a video by Human Rights Watch that showed footage of the trial, a civil party representative in the proceedings spoke regarding his experience. He was a victim of prolonged torture by the regime and inquired why victims of such heinous crimes were required to fight for justice for so long.

He noted that while the Habré verdict was an important step, reparations are still critical. He explained that reparations address several dimensions of the harm suffered by the victims, but its psychological impact is the most important. In this sense, reparations offer the victims of torture the opportunity to restore their dignity. He stated that reparations are often a matter of life or death for victims of gross human rights violations, who many times have lost everything as a result of the crimes suffered. He further stressed that Chad and the African Union have the obligation to ensure reparations are provided for the victims, as required by the Court’s judgment. However, in recognition of the financial weakness of Chad, he stressed that external funding is needed. He stated that victims believe that foreign states that encouraged the dictatorship of Habré should be required to provide compensation.

In addition, a lawyer involved in the Habré trial and a reparations specialist gave their views on best practices to establish a Trust Fund to effectively implement reparations. These experts noted the concerning delay in establishing the Trust Fund by the AU. Currently, a draft statute is circulating that will be considered at the next AU Summit this January. The necessity of establishing the Trust Fund with urgency was stressed, so that victims can achieve full justice within their lifetimes. As there will still be a lack of available assets once the Trust Fund is established, technical expertise and financial tools are needed to locate and seize assets that can contribute to the Trust Fund. It was noted that given the lack of expertise in this area by human rights lawyers, corporate law firms that conduct investigations should consider providing pro bono assistance. In addition, support is needed to perform victim outreach and to ensure that the implementation of reparations is a victim-centered process that avoids re-traumatization. The speakers further highlighted options for structuring and funding reparations, concluding that a hybrid approach where donors support the fund to build its capacity to reparations together with the seizure of assets will likely be needed. In addition to continued efforts to identify assets of the former Habré regime that can be seized, the responsibility of Chad to provide funds was stressed. The speakers noted that relaying on donors to fund reparations can be problematic, as it blurs the lines between reparations and broader development assistance, thus undermining the purpose of reparations. Given this, the role of donors in building capacity instead of providing compensation was stressed. The speakers further suggested that the option of a staggered payment plan would help facilitate payments in the Trust Fund by the government of Chad.

The event concluded with further emphasize on the necessity of reparations to achieve equitable justice for the victims of the Habré regime. The establishment and implementation of the Trust Fund for Habré victims has the potential to acknowledge victim suffering and should remain a priority on the international agenda.