M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American law professor who helped create the International Criminal Court in 1998 after having spent decades investigating human rights abuses from apartheid-era South Africa to the former Yugoslavia, died Sept. 25 at his home in Chicago. He was 79.
Daniel Swift, a lawyer who worked in Bassiouni’s legal practice, said the cause was complications from multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in plasma cells.
Bassiouni was often called “the father of international criminal law,” although his more-than two dozen books and 256 scholarly articles touched on subjects including citizens’ arrests, juvenile delinquency, international extradition and the Islamic criminal justice system.
He helped found the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago, where he had taught since 1964. In 1972, he founded the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, a training and research organization in Sicily.
“There is quite simply nobody like him in the international human rights law systems,” said William Schabas, an international law professor at Middlesex University in London. “When I went to law school in the 1980s, virtually the only writings on the subject of international criminal justice were by him.”
Much of his work concerned the creation of a world court for international crimes, a venue with jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Such a court had been a pipe dream since the close of World War I and had existed in temporary form only when Nazi leaders were tried in Nuremberg after World War II.
Yet, interest in a global court grew after the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, established in The Hague in 1993 to prosecute crimes committed during the Yugoslav Wars.
Bassiouni was appointed chairman of a United Nations commission charged with researching the crimes. He led a team that gathered evidence that would be used to indict military and political leaders such as Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb convicted of genocide and other charges in 2016.
The five-person commission received only limited funding from the United Nations — Bassiouni eventually secured more than $800,000 in grant money — but identified 151 mass graves and found that rape was used by Serbian forces to terrorize Muslim women in Bosnia. Its searing 84-page report was buttressed by more than 65,000 pages of source material and a 3,300-page appendix, transported to The Hague from Chicago inside a cargo container.
“I was not interested in going after the little soldier who commits the individual crime,” Bassiouni told the Chicago Reader in 1999. “I was after building a case against the leaders who make the decisions. So I was going to establish that there was ethnic cleansing as a policy, that there was systematic rape as a policy, that there was destruction of cultural property as a policy, that the destruction of Sarajevo was a systematic process.
“What I didn’t realize,” he continued, “was that this was precisely what the British, and to some extent the French and the Russians, did not want.”
Bassiouni’s work drew the scorn of some political leaders who were trying to negotiate a peace settlement in the region. He was nearly appointed the tribunal’s main prosecutor, the Times of London reported, but was barred from the position by diplomats who were afraid he would “move too quickly to charge Serb and possibly Croatian leaders with war crimes,” potentially disrupting the peace process.
The tribunal, he later said, was underfunded and underambitious. But it and a similar tribunal, created in response to the Rwandan genocide, laid the groundwork for the International Criminal Court.
That body was formed out of a 1998 gathering in Rome, during which Bassiouni chaired a U.N. drafting committee by day and spent his evenings working on a book about crimes against humanity. A resulting treaty that created the court was endorsed by 120 nations and entered into force in 2002, without support from the United States. (Officials in the George W. Bush administration said they were concerned about politically motivated prosecutions and a lack of checks and balances within the court.)
Bassiouni was crucial to the passage of the treaty, said Leila Sadat, a professor of international criminal law at Washington University in St. Louis who participated in the gathering.
“It took a network of thousands of people all over the world, but for the work of Cherif, it would not have happened,” she said. “He had an understanding of criminology, and of how nations cooperate with each other, and how international institutions work, that was unmatched by anybody.”
Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni was born in Cairo on Dec. 9, 1937. His father was an Egyptian diplomat, and his grandfather — a president of the Egyptian senate — fought during Egypt’s 1919 revolt against British occupation.
Bassiouni played his own part in the wars and rebellions of the region. He was studying law in France when the Suez Crisis broke out in 1956 and returned home to fight against the combined Israeli-British-French attack on the Sinai Peninsula.
Bassiouni received decorations in Egypt for his service in the conflict, but he later found himself imprisoned for speaking out against what he described as disappearances and murders occurring under the regime of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. His military record and family connections, he said, helped save him from being executed for treason.
Bassiouni received a bachelor of laws degree from the University of Cairo in 1962. He graduated from Indiana University’s law school in 1964 and received a master’s degree and doctorate in law, respectively, from John Marshall Law School in Chicago and George Washington University.
He married Rosanna Cesari in 1962. According to Swift, she died while she and Bassiouni were in the process of separating. A marriage to Nina Delmissier ended with her death in 2006.
Bassiouni’s survivors include his wife, Elaine Klemen-Bassiouni; a stepdaughter, Lisa Capitanini; and two grandchildren.
A soft-spoken polyglot who was conversational in a half-dozen languages, Bassiouni was appointed to a score of U.N. commissions and was a frequent consultant to the U.S. government, including during the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979.
Most recently, he chaired an independent inquiry in Bahrain that released a 2011 report documenting torture and other abuses against anti-government protesters in the country.
It was part of a string of efforts that, Bassiouni acknowledged, would not always be successful in triggering reform or bringing about justice.
“I can place my little grain of sand and add to that very thin veneer of civilization,” he told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1992. “I’m a very firm believer in the incremental approach; things change because individuals move their little grain of sand.”