CHICAGO — Human rights advocate, renowned legal scholar and DePaul University Emeritus Professor of Law M. Cherif Bassiouni died Sept. 25 at the age of 79.
A memorial celebration is planned from 4-7:30 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Chicago Symphony Center, Buntrock Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations may be directed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
Bassiouni joined DePaul’s College of Law in 1964. As a professor, he introduced the field of international human rights law to generations of students and inspired many to follow in his footsteps, forging careers fighting for the rights of powerless people around the globe.
In 1972, he co-founded the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, formerly the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences, which has become one of the world’s largest training institutes for jurists. More than 39,000 judges, prosecutors, lawyers, police officers and academics from 165 countries have participated in the institute’s activities. Bassiouni oversaw all of those programs and 120 publications containing the proceedings and materials relating to those programs.
In 1990, he founded DePaul’s International Human Rights Law Institute, over which he presided until 2008, a year before he retired. During those years, the institute became world famous, involving many students who went on to pursue international careers. His teaching, scholarship and international accomplishments have garnered dozens of awards from many nations, including 11 medals of honor and 10 honorary degrees, including one conferred by DePaul University in 2015.
A leading authority on international criminal law and human rights
For decades, Bassiouni had been the United Nations’ choice to conduct investigations where genocide, murder, rape, sexual slavery, violence against citizens, pillaging of property and other heinous crimes were suspected, including in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bahrain and Libya. Among his distinguished posts were co-chair of the Committee of Experts that drafted the U.N. Convention Against Torture; chair of the U.N. 780 Commission of Experts to investigate war crimes in the former Yugoslavia; chair of the U.N. General Assembly committee laying the groundwork for the International Criminal Court’s establishment; chair of the drafting committee at the Rome Diplomatic Conference that established the court; U.N. independent expert addressing the rights to restitution, compensation and rehabilitation for victims of grave violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms; and independent expert for human rights in Afghanistan.
Bassiouni was instrumental in setting up the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. His work in the former Yugoslavia is credited with laying the groundwork to bring its disgraced president, Slobodan Milosevic, to trial.
The U.S. Departments of State and Justice had sought his expertise on projects relating to international drug trafficking, international control of terrorism, the defense of the U.S. hostages in Iran, governance and democracy projects in the Middle East and North Africa, and the future of the Iraqi justice system.
From the 1970s through just recently, Bassiouni had undertaken the gut-wrenching work of interviewing victims of torture, rape, kidnapping and illegal detention, and the families of those who died as a result of such savage acts. He and his teams met with victims, speaking to those who could and would, and collecting evidence to give voice to those who lost their lives and could no longer speak for themselves.
Survivors told stories of violence, human trafficking, exploitation, forced labor, the drug trade and life in prison without due process. Bassiouni reported the facts as he documented them, not tempering his findings to appease politicians. His allegiance was to the defenseless and the disenfranchised, not governments. Indeed, his exploration of human rights violations in Afghanistan led to the discovery of prisoners being abused in American-operated holding centers throughout Afghanistan.
Bassiouni spent much of his life in the world’s trenches documenting atrocities caused by men who disrespect the value of human life and disregard the rule of law. His laser focus on this mission enabled him to wage a very different kind of war: one that brings war criminals to court and justice to survivors. His contributions to the establishment of an International Criminal Court, where those who commit genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are now prosecuted, earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
When the International Scientific and Professional Advisory Council of the United Nations nominated Bassiouni for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, it called him the “single most driving force behind the global decision to establish the International Criminal Court.” The International Association of Penal Law, of which he was president for 15 years, is a worldwide, scholarly, international criminal justice organization with more than 3,000 members in 99 countries. Under Bassiouni’s direction, the association worked tirelessly to bring worldwide attention to the need for establishing the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Today the court has jurisdiction over the most serious international crimes and has eliminated the impunity that once emboldened war criminals.
Teaching law students to be tenacious in the pursuit of justice and resolute in righting injustices
"Cherif was one-of-a-kind, an incredible teacher and prolific scholar who touched the minds of so many who follow in his footsteps,” said Jennifer Rosato Perea, dean of DePaul’s College of Law. “His legacy in furthering human rights around the world will be felt for generations. Although we can never fill the void that Cherif left, we can continue to honor him through the law school's work in human rights locally and globally,” she said.
“During his 45 years at DePaul, Cherif made many contributions to the university and to the international community,” noted Bruce Ottley, a professor of law who had been a colleague since 1978. “In addition to being a renowned and prolific scholar and excellent classroom teacher, he believed that he had an obligation to put into practice what he taught. He established the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights in Italy, which brought together government officials, lawyers, and academics from all over the world to study problems of criminal justice and human rights,” Ottley said.
“Cherif established the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul, which gave students an opportunity to become involved in human rights projects in Central America, the Middle East and other parts of the world. He was the chair of the group that drafted the Rome Treaty, creating the International Criminal Court. He also put his own life at risk while investigating and collecting evidence of war crimes in Bosnia in the 1990s. DePaul and the international community owe a deep debt of gratitude to Cherif. He will be sorely missed in these difficult times,” Ottley said.
Education, career, family
Bassiouni was born in Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 9, 1937. He was the son of an Egyptian ambassador and the grandson of the first president of the Egyptian Senate. He fought for the Egyptian National Defense in the Suez War of 1956 and immigrated to the United States in 1962.
During his career, Bassiouni testified before Congress 18 times, authored, co-authored or edited 80 books and wrote 269 articles. He studied law in Dijon, France, and Geneva, Switzerland before obtaining an LL.B. from the University of Cairo in Egypt. He also pursued his legal education the United States where he earned the following degrees: J.D. Indiana University, LL.M. John Marshall Law School, and S.J.D. George Washington University.
Bassiouni is survived by his wife Elaine Klemen-Bassiouni, his stepdaughter, Lisa Capitanini, and two step-grandchildren.
Note: Updated Oct. 9, 2017, with memorial service information.