The Habré case and access to justice
Being armed with a court judgment doesn’t necessarily translate to full redress, writes Tendai Maregere
As Chadians celebrated the conviction of dictator Hissène Habré last month, the challenge now is to translate their triumph into genuine access to justice – there is no point being armed with a court judgment if it cannot bring closure to the victims’ suffering.
The euphoria that gripped the survivors of the Habré regime may soon turn into despair if due care and sufficient emphasis is not placed on pursuing restitution and linking this process to local perspectives of justice. For the relatives of the more than 40 000 victims, the assumption that compensation is their means for justice might be misplaced. The torture and abuse inflicted by the regime surely cannot be easily quantified.
Also, seeking justice through internationally constituted tribunals and accessing that justice are two completely different but interrelated processes. Often, the notions of justice emerging from these processes frame “justice” through a Western prism, which ignores aspects of what is most important to local actors.
A clear and conscious effort has to be made to ensure a people-centric notion of justice is acknowledged and prioritised. This to frame issues of access appropriately to ensure justice becomes meaningful to those who were denied it in periods of repression.
In this sense, the Habré judgment brings into sharp focus the importance of making operational international or continental mechanisms in pursuing justice for the victims and survivors of mass atrocities.
In Chad, important work has already been done by Human Rights Watch, the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Regime of Habré and others in assisting the victims to access African Union chambers to pursue a civil suit. Positively, the chambers will, in that light, hold a second set of hearings premised on damages for civil parties and other victims. This is a step in the right direction, however, it is one thing to pay reparations and another to ensure that victims and survivors access “their justice”. This because some of the atrocities committed, such as rape, ethnic cleansing and loss of opportunities, cannot be quantified. Monetary compensation has the potential to trigger another storm if the calculation of such compensation is deemed by the victims as elitist, nepotistic and inadequate. For victims of grave human rights violations, tension will always exist between accessing social programmes to deal with basic needs and claiming the right to truth, justice and reparations. Receiving services everybody is entitled to, such as humanitarian assistance or access to primary education and healthcare, and framing these as a form of reparation, may increase a sense of injustice. Ultimately, a number of questions persist: How do we frame the issues of access to justice in the aftermath of international criminal convictions and what does that access look like? Is assessing compensation sufficient to victims who were raped and targeted for ethnic cleansing? How does this construction of justice resonate with the lived realities and conceptions of justice at the domestic/local level? If these issues are not canvassed in a more realistic and nuanced way, access to justice for the victims of mass human rights violations in general, and indeed for those who suffered under the Habré regime, will remain a mirage. Maregere is a doctoral researcher at Coventry University in England, and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town