“It is striking to compare the mixed impact of the [international] tribunals on victims and on local justice processes with the seemingly much greater and less ambiguous impact of (…) transnational investigations [such as the Pinochet, Argentina, Guatemala, and Habré cases] done at a fraction of the cost. Why? One answer has to do with the agency of victims and survivors. Rather than play passive roles in litigation driven by prosecutors, the victims and witnesses, and their organizations and attorneys, were the driving forces behind the cases.”
–Naomi Roht-Arriaza, The Pinochet Effect
Pursuing criminal accountability for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes has always required the input and support of many actors, from politicians, decision-makers, and prosecutors, to practitioners with technical expertise in developing cases, gathering evidence, and witness protection. However, in recent decades, victims and survivors of atrocity crimes have assumed an increasingly prominent role in building and sustaining the political will to deliver justice and accountability. Victim groups and associations have coalesced together with NGO allies around a common pursuit of justice in Chad, The Gambia, Liberia, Chile, Guatemala, Colombia, Haiti, and elsewhere. By placing their stories and experiences as victims at the center of the struggle for justice, victims have emerged as the driving force behind campaigns to garner the political attention and interest to deliver justice.
Spotlight: Chadian victims’ relentless pursuit for justice
The regime of Chad’s Hissène Habré was characterized by widespread political killings, systematic torture, arbitrary arrests, and group-targeted violence. In May 2016, twenty years after his regime ended in 1990, the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal convicted Habré of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture, sentenced Habré to life imprisonment, and ordered that he pay his victims compensation. However, this outcome was not a foregone conclusion; the process that led to his trial and ultimate conviction was marked by countless setbacks in what has been described as “an interminable political and legal soap opera” (external link).
Instrumental in sustaining interest in and support for Habré’s trial despite the numerous delays, legal challenges, and resource constraints, was an association of Chadian victims. The victims’ association, which included victims from diverse groups, was led by former detainees Souleymane Guengueng, who had vowed during his detention to pursue justice if he was ever released, and Clement Abaifouta and was supported by Chadian lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeina. The victims’ association spent 13 years compiling a dossier detailing the horrific crimes perpetrated during Habré’s regime. Not only did this inform the basis for the charges laid against Habré, the association was also critical in garnering support of important international allies who helped to ensure an independent court was established that ultimately convicted Habré.
It is important to note that Habré’s victims, who have yet to receive their court-ordered compensation, continue to struggle for justice.