When it comes to enforcing issues such as human rights violations, dealing with the minutiae of international law can slow down efforts and complicate the process. It is for this reason that the late M. Cherif Bassiouni—recently dead at 79—is hailed as the ‘father of international criminal law’ for his efforts in creating the International Criminal Court.
An Egyptian-American, Bassiouni’s extensive body of work covering crime and punishment both in the United States and abroad is impressive in of itself. With over two dozen books published and over 256 scholarly articles, it is clear that he is a scholar at his core. Indeed, in addition to his other pursuits, Bassiouni was a founding member of the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences, where he served as Dean and later President of the school. Even earlier than that, he founded the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago.
Still, his accomplishments go far beyond his research and writings into a nascent and unrealized international criminal justice system. These issues were nothing new, but despite extensive debate on the subject and support from major world powers, there was no body designed to prosecute international crimes. Though German leaders were prosecuted for their war crimes at Nuremberg in the wake of the Second World War, with a similar tribunal held for their Japanese counterparts, statutes defined for an international court were suspended not long after their inception.
Mr. Bassiouni was perhaps born too late. His zeal in research and pursuing solutions to glaring issues in international law would bear fruit, but not until decades after the war. Naturally, when an international tribunal was created to investigate and prosecute Serbian leaders that had committed war crimes during the Yugoslav Wars, Bassiouni was appointed chairman of a group charged with investigating these crimes.
Though their resources were limited, Bassiouni and his commission were determined and thorough, compiling an 84 page document backed up by an astounding 65,000 pages of supporting documents, along with video testimony and a sizable appendix. The whole report was so extensive that it had to be shipped via cargo crate.
“I could document that in the three years of the siege [of Sarajevo], on a daily basis, how many rounds of artillery and mortar fell, how many sniper shots were fired, how many people were injured or wounded,” said Bassiouni when describing his findings.
Though he had found evidence of atrocities committed by Serbian forces, Bassiouni was more concerned with prosecuting the leaders who gave the orders and established policies that lead, directly or otherwise, to these issues. Though his efforts were ultimately dismissed by politicians fearing that his work would disrupt peace accords, they proved the harbinger for more fruitful initiatives to come.
His work on this tribunal ended up providing the basis for the International Criminal Court. In the intervening time, he published numerous works on war crimes, including pieces defining crimes against humanity.
Though the Court was ostensibly an effort of many nations, with 120 endorsing the treaty that created it, Bassiouni was crucial to making it work. His extensive understanding of international law, criminology, and numerous details on multinational cooperation paved the way for establishing the values and ethics that the Court would go on to enforce.
Bassiouni’s legacy lives on as the Court and similar institutions, created with the help of his work, strive toward a more just world. Friends paint a picture of a compelling speaker—Bassiouni was fluent in six languages—who sought to build bridges between people of different nationalities and faiths, always working to make a difference a little at a time.