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M. Cherif Bassiouni, 79, ‘father of international criminal law’
Dr. Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American law professor, helped create the International Criminal Court in 1998.
By Harrison Smith
WASHINGTON — 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 Dr. Bassiouni’s legal practice, said the cause was complications from multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in plasma cells.
Dr. 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.
Dr. 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 — Dr. 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,’’ Dr. 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.’’
Dr. 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 Dr. Bassiouni chaired a UN 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 ICC.)
Dr. Bassiouni leaves hiswife, Elaine Klemen-Bassiouni; a stepdaughter, Lisa Capitanini; and two grandchildren.