Crimes Against Humanity in Chad

by Richard Keeble, December 4, 2006


One of the most remarkable human rights campaigns of recent years has gone largely unreported in the British mainstream media. During the 1980s Hissène Habré, installed as head of state in Chad following a CIA-backed coup in 1982, had presided over 'crimes against humanity' and 'torture' in his country before being ousted in another coup in 1990. In a rare instance of coverage, on May 21st 1992 The Guardian carried four short paragraphs reporting how 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or been executed during the tyranny of Habré. A justice ministry report concluded that Habré had committed genocide against the Chadian people.

Now Senegal, where Habré lives in exile, has finally responded to an appeal by the African Union to try the former Chadian dictator. He is accused of 40,000 political killings and 200,000 cases of torture during his eight-year rule. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch claimed Habré was responsible for thousands of cases of political killings, torture, 'disappearances' and arbitrary detention. Moreover, the regime produced 80,000 orphans and more than 30,000 widows.

Since 1990 a range of human rights groups have sought to have Habré charged with crimes against humanity. For instance, six years ago, in a case inspired by the one against Chile's General Augusto Pinochet, several human rights organisations, led by Human Rights Watch, filed a suit against Habré in Senegal. They argued that he could be tried anywhere for crimes against humanity and that former heads of state were not immune. However, on March 21st 2001, the Senegal Court of Cassation threw out the case. And so human rights campaigners turned their attention to Belgium where one of the victims of Habré's torture lived.

Following threats from the United States in June 2003 that Belgium risked losing its status as host to NATO's headquarters, a 1993 historic law, which allowed victims to file complaints in Belgium for atrocities committed abroad, was repealed. Yet a new law, adopted in August 2003, made special provision for the continuation of the case against Habré - much to the delight of human rights campaigners. Now the Senegal intervention appears to have finally brought Habré to court.

These were extraordinary events but all of them hidden behind a virtual wall of silence in the mainstream media in Britain. Yet also hidden is the massive, secret war which has been waged by the United States and Britain from bases in Chad against Libya. British involvement in a 1996 plot to assassinate the Libyan leader, Colonel Mu'ammar Gadafi, as alleged by the maverick M15 officer David Shayler, was reported as an isolated event. Yet it is best seen as part of a wide-ranging and long-standing strategy (now abandoned) of the US and UK secret states to remove Gadafi.

Grabbing power by ousting King Idris in a 1969 coup, Gadafi (who, intriguingly, had followed a military training course in England in 1966) soon became the target of covert operations by the French, Americans, Israelis and British. _Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of M16, records how in 1971 a British plan to invade the country, release political prisoners and restore the monarchy ended in an embarrassing flop. Nine years later, the head of the French secret service, Alain de Gaigneronde de Marolles, resigned after a French-led plan ended in disaster when a rebellion by Libyan troops in Tobruk was quickly suppressed.

Then, in 1982, away from the glare of the media, Habré, with the backing of the CIA and French troops, overthrew the Chadian government of Goukouni Wedeye. Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), in his semi-official history of the CIA, reveals that the Chad covert operation was the first undertaken by the new CIA chief William Casey and that, throughout the decade, Libya ranked as high as the Soviet Union as the bête noir of the White House. A report from Amnesty International, 'Chad: The Habré Legacy', records massive military and financial support for the dictator by the US Congress. It adds: 'None of the documents presented to Congress and consulted by AI covering the period 1984 to 1989 make any reference to human rights violations'.

US official records indicate that funds for the Chad-based covert war against Libya also came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Iraq. The Saudis, for instance, gave $7 million to an opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (also backed by French intelligence and the CIA). However, a plan to assassinate Gadafi and seize power on May 8th 1984 was crushed. In the following year, the US asked Egypt to invade Libya and overthrow Gadafi but President Mubarak refused. By the end of 1985, the Washington Post had exposed the plan after congressional leaders opposing it wrote in protest to President Reagan.

Frustrated in its covert attempts to topple Gadafi, the US government's strategy suddenly shifted. For eleven minutes in the early morning of April 14th 1986, thirty US air force and navy bombers struck Tripoli and Benghazi in a raid code-named El Dorado Canyon._The US/UK mainstream media were ecstatic. Yet the main purpose of the raid was to kill the Libyan president - dubbed a 'mad dog' by Reagan. In the event, the first bomb to drop on Tripoli hit Gadafi's home killing Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months - while his eight other children and wife Safiya were all hospitalised, some with serious injuries. The president escaped.

Reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media after the 1986 assault. But away from the glare of publicity, the CIA launched its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gadafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s. And as concerns grew in M16 that Gadafi was aiming to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya.

Then in 1990, with the crisis in the Gulf developing, French troops helped oust Habré in a secret operation and install Idriss Déby as the new President of Chad. The French government had tired of Habré's genocidal policies while George Bush senior's administration decided not to frustrate France in exchange for co-operation in its attack on Iraq. Yet, even under Déby, abuses of civil rights by government forces have continued.

Recently, relations between the US, UK and Libya have thawed, with Gadafi pledging support for the 'war against terrorism' and agreeing to pay compensation to the victims of the 1988 Flight 103 Lockerbie bombing, for which a Libyan intelligence agent was jailed. But significantly, at his trial in November 2003, David Shayler was denied the right (under the European Convention of Human Rights) to speak out about the 1996 anti-Gadafi plot. Since it is obvious there are a lot of shady secrets from the years of the dirty war to conceal, such a decision by the court must have come as a relief to the government.

US troops are currently arriving in several African countries, including Chad, as the Pentagon warns that the region runs the risk of becoming an al-Qaida recruiting ground. Moreover, oil reserves in North and West Africa are drawing increasing attention from the US. West Africa supplies the US with 15 per cent of its oil while the US National Intelligence Council has projected the figure will grow to 25 per cent by 2015. The 650-mile, £2.8 billion oil pipeline between Chad and Cameroon, finished in 2002, amounted to Africa's largest ever development project. Yet it was criticised for damaging the interests of the poor, the people it was supposed to help.

World Bank officials admitted the Chad government had spent the first £10 million of the monies it received from the consortium on arms for its security forces rather than on the educational and development projects for which they were intended. And yet in Britain these extraordinary events are greeted largely with silence.

Richard Keeble is an author and professor of journalism at the University of Lincoln, England. This commentary first appeared in The Fifth Estate Online, an international journal of radical media criticism.

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