Statement by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on the conviction of Hissène Habré

Date: Tuesday, May 31, 2016

UN Women welcomes the historic conviction of Hissène Habré, ex-president of Chad, for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual slavery of women during his time in power from 1982 to 1990. The Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal convicted Mr. Habré on 30 May 2016, and sentenced him to life in prison. This is the first time that the court of one country has prosecuted the former ruler of another for human rights crimes. It is also the first universal jurisdiction case to proceed to trial in Africa.

This conviction—and in particular, the charges of rape and sexual slavery—has been hard-won. The original indictment of Habré did not include charges relating to sexual violence. However, through persistent witness testimony, these crimes became a central feature of this trial. Four women testified before the court about their experience of being sent to a camp in the north Chad desert in 1988, where the army forced them into sexual slavery. One woman, Khadidja Hassan Zidane, testified that Mr. Habré himself had raped her on four separate occasions. This allowed the international court to find the ex-dictator personally responsible for committing rape—the first time this judicial finding has been possible against a former Head of State.

The original exclusion of gender-based crimes from the charges against Mr. Habré is not unique. It underlines the on-going challenges that survivors and their advocates face in breaking the silence that so often surrounds grave crimes like these, which are used as a weapon of fear and a tactic for subjugating populations. UN Women congratulates the Extraordinary African Chambers for its efforts to rectify this omission.

UN Women stands in solidarity with the survivors of the crimes of Mr. Habré’s regime in Chad, who have waited more than two decades for this conviction. The brave men and women who testified exemplify the strength of survivors around the world who tirelessly advocate for an end to impunity, often at great personal risk. This conviction would also not have been possible without the inspiring determination of lawyers, victims’ advocates, human rights defenders, and local and international civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch, who insisted on justice for Mr. Habré’s victims.

This year, UN Women joined these organizations, and supported the Extraordinary African Chambers in its work to consider the gender dimensions of human rights and international humanitarian law violations. Through the JRR-UN Women Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Justice Experts Roster, we deploy investigators and gender advisors around the world to support the investigation and prosecution of these crimes at national, regional and international levels.

The African Union is also to be commended for its support for the Habré trial. The trial, and an AU-supported commission of inquiry for South Sudan that took place in 2014, are critical facets of work towards ending impunity in the region. These processes send an important message to Heads of State: that abuses against their own people will not be tolerated within the African Union. However, the conviction of Mr. Habré is only one step towards the full goal of transformative justice that we seek for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Chad, and elsewhere. UN Women encourages Chad to act on its international obligation to provide reparations to victims of gross violations of human rights, with the support of the African Union and the international community. Chad’s support of both male and female survivors to rebuild their lives through access to land, education and healthcare, and its fostering of a more stable, equal and peaceful society, are essential steps to ensure that these crimes will never occur again.

The conviction of Mr. Habré joins several other landmark rulings on sexual and gender-based violence in recent months. In February, a Guatemalan national court convicted two former military officers of rape and sexual slavery. In March, the International Criminal Court handed down its first conviction for sexual and gender-based crimes, against Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, for atrocities committed in the Central African Republic. Decades of efforts by lawyers, advocates and survivors are now bearing fruit, signifying the global commitment to end impunity for sexual and gender-based violence. UN Women is committed to ensuring that this global momentum for accountability continues to grow, until there is an unstoppable force for justice which makes these crimes a relic of the past.