Hissene Habre’s death in prison is a reminder that his western counterparts go scot free


News of former Chadian president Hissene Habre’s death (on August 24) made me think of crime and punishment and how it seems to affect some heads of state more than others.

Leaders in African, Middle Eastern and Balkan states often get their just desserts.

There was Habre, of course, 79 and serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity committed during his time in office in the 1980s. His 2016 conviction in Senegal made Habre the first former head of state to be punished in this way by another country’s courts.

It’s really rather remarkable that Habre should have been put on trial and convicted except that this sequence seems to be increasingly common for African, Middle Eastern and Balkan leaders.

Remember the many photos of African and Middle Eastern leaders sitting in a cage in a courtroom? They include Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who was convicted in 2012 of complicity in the deaths of Arab Spring protestors. And Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who was convicted in 2019 of corruption. [In early 2020, Sudanese officials said they intended to transfer him to The Hague for prosecution for allegedly orchestrating a campaign of mass violence, including murder, torture and rape, against non-Arab ethnic groups in the Darfur region.]

I don’t specifically remember Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in a cage during his 2006 trial but do have a memory of him shouting impotently when he was convicted of multiple crimes, including ordering the execution of about 150 Shiite Iraqis in the northern town of Dujail, killing some 5,000 Kurds with chemical gas in Halabja and invading Kuwait.

Former Liberian president Charles Taylor was also forced to confront the reality of his actions — directing the rebel forces that committed atrocities in Sierra Leone — in 2012. The first former head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal since World War II, Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Balkan leaders are often held to account as well. There was Slobodan Milosevic who died in 2006, before the conclusion of his trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Kosovo’s former president Hashim Thaci is currently being tried by a so-called ‘Special Court’ located in the Netherlands for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity when fighting against Serbian rule.

Yugoslav general Ratko Mladić was convicted in 2017 for war crimes during the Bosnian war.

The laundry list above is by no means complete but what’s striking is the lack of representation from the western world.

Leaders in western countries don’t seem to suffer for their actions — corruption yes, but not for crimes against humanity by causing the deaths of millions. Think George W. Bush and Tony Blair for their role in invading Iraq on a false pretext. At the very least, Mr Bush and Mr Blair (as well as former General Colin Powell) should have paid the price for telling a lie, with tragic consequences for millions of people as well as a whole country. 

The nearest we’ve got to a western hemisphere genocide trial against a head of state was former Guatemalan president Efrain Rios Montt. In 2013, he became the first Latin American leader to be found guilty of the killing of indigenous people during Guatemala’s nearly 40-year civil war. However, the constitutional court annulled the ruling just days later and Rios Montt died before the retrial, thereby evading justice.