Chadian and UN officials say the absence of a child trafficking law in Chad will hamper efforts to prosecute members of a French association who were arrested in the country while trying to take 103 children to host families in France.
The association, L’Arche de Zoé (Zoe’s Ark), says it was trying to rescue Sudanese orphans from “certain death” in the Darfur region, on the border with Chad.
Six members of the group – arrested on 25 October – have been charged with abducting minors for the purpose of changing their civil status (giving them new parents), a crime that carries a penalty of five to 20 years of forced labour.
“There are no other penalties in the abduction chapter [of the criminal code] stronger than the one we chose,” said Ahmad Daoud Chari, state prosecutor in Abéché, the eastern Chadian town where the members of the association were arrested.
“Our penal code is limited. It doesn’t cover [many] infractions. There is a gap,” Chari told IRIN.
According to Papa Babacar Ndiaye, national program officer at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for West and Central Africa, the gap in Chadian legislation creates several obstacles.
“The drawback is that you may commit a very serious crime – child trafficking is among the most serious crimes – and then be punished for a less serious crime,” he told IRIN.
He said charges of abduction would not only result in more lenient sentences in the case of a conviction, but would be harder to convict in the first place.
“It might be easier for an investigator to prove human trafficking than to prove abduction,” he said.
Although the information has not yet been verified, there is speculation in this case that the children were willingly handed over, in which case abduction would be difficult to prove, Ndiaye said.
Trafficking legislation usually encompasses the illegal recruitment of children from “vulnerable” parents, who may agree to give up their children because they cannot care for them, he said.
A conviction in child trafficking also allows authorities to seize any assets used in the commission of the crime, Ndiaye said, which can deter future incidences.
The UNODC has been advocating for national laws criminalising child trafficking since the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000.
International conventions and protocols are legally binding for states that ratify them, but must be adopted as national law in order to be enforced.
Chad has not signed on to the Protocol, but it is party to several other international conventions that deal with child trafficking in some form. It has, for example, signed a multilateral agreement and regional action plan against human trafficking, particularly of women and children, drafted in 2006 by regional bodies representing West and Central Africa.
Still, the regional and international agreements have not been integrated into Chadian law.
“It’s a question of delay in the procedures,” Justice Minister Pahimi Padacké Albert told IRIN. “It’s in the pipeline.”
He said a judicial reform commission, inactive for years, was reactivated two months ago and is reviewing all Chadian laws in order to incorporate international conventions into the national penal code.
While a child trafficking law is a tool that “could have helped” in the L’Arche de Zoé case, Albert said the situation can be dealt with under the current law.
The UNODC says the case has highlighted a widespread problem.
“There are many countries [that] lag behind in enforcing these conventions, especially organised crime conventions,” the UNODC’s Ndiaye said.
According to UNODC, just two of 11 countries in Central Africa – Gabon and Equatorial Guinea – have specific laws against child trafficking. In West Africa, where past trafficking incidents have brought increased attention and international pressure, 13 of 16 countries have enacted legislation. UNODC has legislative assistance programmes available to countries upon request.
Chadian authorities arrested nine French citizens – six members of L'Arche de Zoé and three journalists accompanying them – at the Abéché airport as they were trying to take children to Vatry International Airport, some 150km east of Paris, where 50 French families were reportedly waiting to take them in.
In addition to abduction, they have also been charged with fraud. A Chadian village leader and seven Spanish crew of the charter plane that was to fly the children to France have been charged with complicity. A second Chadian, a deputy prefect, is also implicated but not yet charged.
In interviews with the UN Refugee Agency, the UN Children's Fund and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the majority of the children said they came from Chadian villages near the Chad-Sudan border and had been living with their families, consisting of at least one adult they considered a parent, the agencies said on 1 November. ICRC and the UN agencies, along with Chadian authorities, are currently caring for the children.
L’Arche de Zoé has denied that the transfer was for adoption purposes.
Its secretary general, Stéphanie Lefebvre, told the French newspaper Le Parisien she was “enraged” by Chad’s accusations of child trafficking, which she described as “catastrophic”. Investigations are ongoing, and none of the accusations against the group has yet been proven in court.