Legal academic and human rights activist whose work led to the creation of two international criminal courts
Cherif Bassiouni speaking in Bahrain in 2011. He conducted no fewer than 22 UN inquiries and commissions. Photograph: Hasan Jamali/AP
Geoffrey Robertson (The Guardian)
Sunday 22 October 2017 18.33 BST
The Egyptian law professor Cherif Bassiouni, who has died aged 79, made an important contribution to the struggle for global justice and to the revival of the Nuremberg legacy. His work, both academic and in his UN reports from war zones, led to the creation of two international criminal courts.
In 1992, he was appointed by the UN to chair a commission of experts to examine war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. His report delivered a searing verdict on the behaviour of all parties to the Balkan wars, but especially on the Serbs under Slobodan Milošević. It argued, in a novel development of the law of war, that through using rape as an instrument of ethnic cleansing, the Serb commanders were guilty of a crime against humanity.
The UN had to act and, over the objections of British diplomats (who believed that peace could be negotiated without justice), accepted Bassiouni’s recommendation to set up a war crimes court – the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia or ICTY– in The Hague. Bassiouni, whose report and lobbying was instrumental in establishing the court (the first since Nuremberg), was an obvious choice as prosecutor, and was nominated by the US. He was blocked by Britain, for no good reason, although perhaps for a bad one – he was a Muslim. The court, in time, delivered justice on Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić and other Serbian and Croat mass-murderers; Milošević died half-way through his trial.
Bassiouni was appointed instead by the UN to report on the conflict in Afghanistan, where he upset the Bush regime by exposing the excesses of its military. He went on to lobby for a proposal he had long supported, when it was just a professorial pipe-dream: an international criminal court. He dominated the Rome conference in 1998 that established this court, the ICC, chairing the drafting committee that produced its statute and lobbying behind the scenes to obtain a large measure of agreement until it began operation in 2002. It now has 124 state parties.
His work won him nomination for the 1999 Nobel prize (which went, instead, to Médecins Sans Frontières). More recently, however, he had spoken despairingly of the UN security council’s failure to permit ICC involvement in Syria, and of the continuing damage to the court by the refusal of Russia, China and the US to sign up to its statute.
Bassiouni was born in Cairo, into an elite family: his grandfather had been president of the senate, and his father a senior diplomat – ironic, given Cherif’s long battle against diplomats who preferred to give tyrants expedient amnesties rather than to put them on trial.
His upbringing was unusual – a Muslim youth sent to be schooled by Jesuits in Egypt and thence to study law in France. He returned to fight for Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and was wounded and decorated for his courage. His patriotism did not stop him from speaking out about the brutality of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s security forces, and he was placed under house arrest (it would have been prison, had his family not been well connected). After seven months of confinement he fled, smuggled himself on board a ship sailing for the US, and continued his legal studies.
His conspicuous brilliance soon led him to be appointed professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago, where in 1990 he set up an International Human Rights Law Institute, as one of the first academics to teach this subject. It remained the base for his outpourings of books (he published 27) and lengthy essays in learned journals (270). He established a European base at the Siracusa Institute in Italy, where he trained quite a few of the judges who now sit on war crimes cases. They speak of him as an inspiring teacher, a role that he never neglected despite his UN work and frequent trips to war zones.
As well as this intellectual output, he conducted no fewer than 22 UN inquiries and commissions. Although he never served as a UN judge or prosecutor, his reports carefully weighed the evidence, some of which he had collected himself at risk to his own life (his light aircraft was once hit by sniper fire over Sarajevo, his hotel in Bosnia was attacked and he narrowly escaped a suicide bomb in Fallujah). Despite the fears of British diplomats, he did not display bias, other than against the authors of the atrocities he examined. His reports had the particular merit of expedition – he usually produced them within six months or so of his mandate.
In 2011 he chaired a commission of inquiry set up by the king of Bahrain to investigate the killings and torture of protesters. His 500-page report, produced in five months, pulled no punches and condemned the culture of impunity that had come about through failures in the local judiciary and in military courts. Several thousand detainees were released as a result.
Bassiouni was, in private, an ebullient man, witty and sophisticated, who loved fine wines and classical music and (at least when I met him) was never without a fine cigar. He was a clever, insistent lobbyist for his projects behind the scenes at the UN, and an advocate for truth who never took money for slanting it. When the UN underfunded his inquiry into the Balkan atrocities he did accept money from the Soros Foundation to pay for some investigations – a matter that the Serbian government criticised, but he believed it was the only way to complete the report, and the funds came without strings attached.
Although some states were cautious over suspicions of his Muslim background, this should have been seen as an asset: he was one of the first scholars to examine the concept of jihad in books and articles and to nuance Islamic teaching in a way that disfavoured violence. He did speak out against the discrimination that Muslims were suffering in the US, and defended the Gaza flotilla after it was attacked by Israel.
Bassiouni watched the developments in his native Egypt with concern and some despondency. He shared the values of the protesters but knew the power of the army too well to think that the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 would pave the way to freedom. He was, of course, correct.
Bassiouni’s first wife, Rosanna Cesari, and second wife, Nina Delmissier, both predeceased him. He is survived by his third wife, Elaine Klemen-Bassiouni, and by a stepdaughter and two grandchildren.
Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, legal scholar, Born 9 December 1937; died 25 September 2017