Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Remembering Cherif Bassiouni


On 25 September 2017, Egypt lost a great man and a colossus of the legal field. Cherif Bassiouni, has been given many names, including ‘father of international criminal law’ and ‘global champion of justice’. He led a fascinating life and leaves an enormous legacy behind him.

Born in Cairo on 19 December 1937, Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni was grandson to the first Egyptian Senate president (Mahmoud Bassiouni), and son to a diplomat (Ibrahim Bassiouni). He pursued his law studies in France but, during the Suez crisis of 1956, returned to Egypt to fight for his country against the Israelis, British and French in Sinai, where he earned decorations.

Cherif Bassiouni - photo Credit: DePaul University

Cherif was put under house arrest and his family persecuted under the Nasser regime. Cherif’s long history of speaking out against injustice began at that time, when he objected to the human rights infringements taking place. He fled Egypt for Italy, reportedly in hiding on a boat, and went on to emigrate to the US in 1962.

I can spend pages recounting the milestones of Cherif’s career. After earning a second law degree at Indiana University in 1964, Cherif began teaching at DePaul University that same year. He taught for over 50 years at DePaul and was appointed Emeritus Professor. He co-founded the prestigious DePaul International Human Rights Law Institute in 1990. In 1972, he co-founded the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, where more than 39,000 legal practitioners from 165 countries have studied. He received further degrees and qualifications in France, Switzerland, John Marshall Law School and George Washington University, as well as a number of honorary degrees.

He was frequently appointed by the UN to investigate human rights abuses, and he received many honours throughout his illustrious career – too many to list here – including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Cherif’s dedication to seeking justice in international law was unrelenting. He spent decades investigating human rights abuses from South Africa, to former Yugoslavia, to Afghanistan and Iraq, among many others. He was instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court in 1998, a concept considered a pipe dream as far back as the First World War.

‘Cherif was a dreamer, but a practical dreamer,’ said Doug Cassel, co-founder of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul to the Chicago Tribune. ‘He believed sooner or later the time would come when the world would see the wisdom of what he was advocating and he was right. He was advocating the use of international criminal law and international criminal courts to deter and punish the worst abuses against human rights.’

photo Credit: website of Cherif Bassiouni (Mahmoud Bassiouni, to the right, with Ghandi and Nehru)

At times, his devotion to the pursuit of universal human rights brought controversy. It only seemed appropriate that he would become the first prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (the ICTY), however, his appointment was blocked by representatives from the UK, who feared his unerring dedication to justice might hamper peace talks. Nonetheless, Cherif was appointed chairman of a United Nations commission charged with researching the crimes. His work was pivotal in ultimately bringing Slobodan Milošević, and other war criminals, to international criminal justice at the Hague.

In 1999, he told the Chicago Reader, ‘I was not interested in going after the little soldier who commits the individual crime. 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 was that this was precisely what the British, and to some extent the French and the Russians, did not want.’

I have known Cherif closely, and was privileged to work with him under the umbrella of the DePaul International Human Rights Law Institute, developing human rights training for Iraqi judges.

Cherif was larger than life. He was a kind man, and he had a very keen sense of humor. His dedication to his students was renowned, and his loyalty to his countrymen never wavered as he guided and provided inspiration to Egyptians in the legal field here and abroad. This reflected his grander vision of seeing his work carried on and his pragmatic endeavor to make the world a better place.

Let me finish with one of my favourite quotes from Cherif, and a lesson in the power one person has to make change. In 1992, he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘I can place my little grain of sand and add to that very thin veneer of civilization. I’m a very firm believer in the incremental approach; things change because individuals move their little grain of sand.’

*The author is a leading international law and arbitration lawyer. He was educated at Yale Law School, Paris University 1 (Sorbonne) and Cairo University. He is the founder and managing partner of Youssef & Partners, Cairo.

**Acknowledgements and thanks go to Ms. Nadia Ibrashi, a close relative of Cherif Bassiouni and the author, for providing and confirming personal information. 

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