Hissene Habre Trial Pits Belgium Against Senegal

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) continues to hear a case this week between Belgium and Senegal to determine whether Senegal reserves the right to try the former-President of Chad, Hissene Habre, or if the country will be ordered to extradite him to Belgium. Senegal is legally bound to the ICJ's ruling; an order for the extradition of Habre would establish a new precedent in the international community.

Hissene Habre has been indicted by Belgium for crimes against humanity that were authorized by him and carried out during his tenure as President of Chad. Such violations of human rights include: massacres of ethnic groups, tens of thousands of political murders, and physical torture. Human rights groups have dubbed him “the African Pinochet.”

Habre has been living in exile in Dakar since 1990, when he was deposed as president. The Senegalese placed him under house arrest in 2005 when an alleged victim of Habre brought a case to a Belgian court, filed under the Belgian Universal Jurisdiction Law.

Senegal has since then delayed and rejected multiple formal requests from the African Union and the European Parliament to either try Habre in Senegal’s ad-hoc tribunal or to extradite him to a country that will conduct a fair trial. Senegal has rejected the fourth extradition request for Hissene Habre that was issued in early 2012.

Belgium has, subsequently, brought the issue to the attention of the International Court of Justice. Belgium has requested that the ICJ order Senegal – under a legally binding verdict – to prosecute Habre in Senegal or extradite him to Belgium to stand trial. 

If the ICJ orders the extradition of Hissene Habre, it would institute a new precedent, resulting in the establishment of new international norms. Upholding universal jurisdiction would pave the way for a new trend of serving justice to a long list of alleged war criminals, including holding heads of state and former heads of state accountable for their violations of human rights. It would bring hope to those hundreds of thousands of victims of crimes against humanity.

Currently, at least 10 countries have declared universal jurisdiction covering certain war crimes and crimes against humanity. Universal jurisdiction exercises authority over areas where the International Criminal Court (ICC) falls short. The ICC is restricted by statute of limitations, dictating that it cannot try crimes that were committed before its inception in 2002. Furthermore, the ICC does not have jurisdiction over states that have not signed and ratified the Statute of Rome. 

Universal jurisdiction allows for the trial of any crime, committed anywhere, at any time. Trying Hissene Habre under the Belgian Universal Jurisdiction Law would encourage other countries to uphold the same standard of accountability.

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