Humanity Lost the Legend: Cherif Bassiouni, The Godfather of International Criminal Law and Justice Commentary
Humanity Lost the Legend: Cherif Bassiouni, The Godfather of International Criminal Law and Justice
Edited by: Krista Grobelny

JURIST Guest Columnist, Mohamed Arafa, of Alexandria University Faculty of Law discusses the accomplishments and contributions of the late Mohamoud Cherif Bassiouni and his deep impact on international criminal law and justice…

Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, a distinguished well-known Egyptian-American jurist and law professor was broadly viewed as a godfather of modern international law and criminal justice, passed away on September 25, 2017, at his home in Chicago, Illinois at 79 and the cause was problems of multiple myeloma (cancer). Bassiouni was born in Cairo on December 9, 1937. His father was a diplomat, his grandfather was a president of the Egyptian Parliament. His stepdaughter, Lisa Capitanini, said that “however his parents were Muslims, they sent him, their unruly and precocious only son, to a Jesuit-run Catholic boarding school in Egypt.”

Bassiouni was studying law at the Faculté de Droit of the Université de Dijon in France when he returned to Egypt to fight in the Suez conflict of 1956, but then put under house arrest for disapproving what he called the extreme torture and disappearances under ‘Abdel Nasser. In 1962, Bassiouni immigrated to the United States and became a naturalized citizen. He studied law in Egypt, France, Switzerland, and the US, collecting doctorates, comprising honorary ones, and an extensive list of medals and awards. He was a forefather of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago, where he taught for 45 years. He formed a significant perch in Europe when he founded the Siracusa International Institute for Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences in Italy. Veterans of the institute said it was a place where he ran dynamically seminars, mixing folks from diverse cultures and legal traditions and that many who joined his seminars became attorneys and judges at international courts.

Bassiouni’s Influence and the Status Quo of International Law

One way to celebrate and honor Bassiouni is to reflect on his scholarly work and discuss how he helped explicate concepts such as Double Criminality for extradition purposes and articulate principles as aut dedere aut judicare. He was co-chairman of the committee that drafted the UN Convention Against Torture. He helped draft the laws to prosecute apartheid and he was sent as a UN expert to report on war crimes in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, and Libya. In 2004, he was appointed by The UN as an independent monitor in Afghanistan, but, after he issued critical reports, Washington stopped the mission. In 1992, the UN Security Council appointed him chairman of a committee to document war crimes during the conflict in Bosnia and Yugoslavia. In the 1990s, he condemned the large-scale sexual abuse and violence of Muslim and Catholic women in Bosnia as war crimes and said that Bosnian Serbs were using rape as a technique of ethnic cleansing. He regularly marking international law as a credible function in the eyes of the international community. His report, a powerfully worded detailed document on torture, rape, prison camps and killings, defined the Serbian-instigated violence as part of a systematic policy of ethnic purgative and shaped the political motion that produced the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICITY) in 1993.

In the field, Bassiouni counted skulls dug up from mass graves, toured prisons crowded with political dissidents and talked to rape victims, whose stories had his head spinning. This report opened the way for a similar tribunal to highlight the genocide crimes, “other inhumane acts” and several violations of international humanitarian law norms in Rwanda. Both tribunals equipped the ground for the enduring International Criminal Court (ICC), at the Hague in the Netherlands which Bassiouni also helped shape [PDF]. Having worked on a draft statute for such a court, he was named Chairman of the drafting committee of the 1998 Rome Treaty, which created the court. Professor William Schabas, Professor at Middlesex University in London said, “He defied senior bureaucrats in the UN by raising funds from private foundations” and “There is quite simply nobody like him in the international human rights law systems.”

In 2007, Bassiouni liked to surprise his audiences, when he received The Hague Prize for International Law, gave a talk about “Jihad” and assembled researchers from Muslim and Western countries to debate its various interpretations and Islam. In 2010, Bassiouni delivered a harsh speech saying that “the ICC had become overly bureaucratic and that it was “doubtful” it could be successful as long as powerful countries did not want an independent international criminal justice system.”

Bassiouni described as a magnetic speaker, tough taskmaster, a sociable host and a demanding perfectionist. He was a compulsive micromanager paid attention to every detail of his work. His scholarship expounded on definitions of the severest international crimes, including war crimes, and genocide and facilitated shape innovative ways to hold perpetrators liable before the law. While running legal institutes and teaching courses widely, he was also an overachiever author whose writings cover several shelves: thirty-five books, close to forty edited volumes and more than two-hundred seventy essays and articles in numerous languages and he never stopped. His expertise in international criminal law brought him global renown and even a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1999. He was a recurrent adviser to the U.S. State Department and a go-to source for National Public Radio on international affairs and worked as a legal consultant for President Obama.

He said in the PBS interview, “I’m in my 70s, I’m a Muslim, I come from the Arab World, and I’m from another generation…I’m absolutely shocked and dismayed and amazed by the total lack of sensitivity to the plight of women in war.”

Bassiouni was not known as an attorney who would chase after headlines. When it was suspected that former Libyan dictator Mu’ammar Gaddafi was using systematic rape as a form of torture, he questioned the credibility of the evidence. He questioned why the U.S. did not have the political will to prosecute and accuse former President George Bush for the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 2004, he accused the U.S. of hiding prisoners from international inspectors. In 2012, he told Foreign Policy, “I have a sense of orderliness about things. Do the investigation first, see what the evidence is, and then indict. You don’t start by indicating without getting the evidence.” His last major international assignment was in the field of international transitional justice as the head of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry tasked to look into deaths and allegations of torture in the aftermath of unrest in the country in 2011. His report confirmed several of the accusations against the Bahraini government and it also denied the government’s claims that the protests were backed by Iran.

Bassiouni authored, contributed to dozens of books on the most debatable issues in the West on Islamic criminal justice. With his direct knowledge of the Muslim world, he wrote influential texts on interpretations of jihad and Islamic law, running seminars on those subjects for lawyers and western military personnel as Islamist violence expanded.

I wanted to recite at the end, that when I first met him in 2010, I flew from Cairo and shifted my flight to Chicago instead of Indianapolis and asked him to be my doctoral co-supervisor at Indiana University at Indianapolis, which is the same school he got his JD degree. I arrived at DePaul Law, I was waiting outside his office and I was surprised that he came outside his office welcoming and greeting me in Arabic and apologized for being a bit late and told me “Mohamed, is it by one M or Mss, then smiled said let’s have lunch together like a turkey sandwich and little juice” I said, “really!!”? Then he said, “Yes sure boy” and then he said, “What is your Ph.D. talking about?” I said, “International Corruption” then he said, “you will talk about this after Egypt’s’ uprising,” I said yes,” then he said, “but you have to watch out.” I felt at this moment how Chief treated me as a Dad talking to his son.

On the day he died, a farewell message went out from his email account that he had dictated days earlier. It included quotations from the Prophet Mohammad, Pope Paul VI, and Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel. He repeated this saying often and it was included in a final message that was sent out to after his passing. It is this hadith by the Prophet Mohammad: “If you see a wrong, you must write it: with your hand if you can, or, with your words, or with your stare, or with your heart and that is the weakest of faith” and then quoted the Qur’an “From God we come and to God we return.” Bassiouni often quoted from the Qur’an, the Bible, and the Talmud, he said, “I liked to build bridges and point to the similarities between the faiths instead of the differences.” Bassiouni’s farewell letter clearly reveals the kind of man he was. He was an aristocrat who ‘walked with Kings, but never lost the common touch.’ His charm, charisma, sense of humor were enchanting, his soul was generous and his heart sympathetic. He was a supreme orator; an inspiring teacher; a gifted wordsmith; a remarkable storyteller; and a supreme scholar of encyclopedic knowledge.

Farewell, MCB! Gone, but never forgotten. May you rest in peace.

Professor ‘Arafa is an Assistant Professor of Law at Alexandria University Faculty of Law and Adjunct Professor of Law at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. He received his SJD from the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney Law School, his LL.M. from University of Connecticut School of Law, and his LL.B. from Alexandria University Law School. Currently, he is a Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Brasília School of Law and is the Managing Editor of the Arab Law Quarterly Journal in London. His teaching and scholarship focus on criminal law, white collar crimes, human rights law, Islamic law, Islamic criminal law, and transitional justice.

Suggested citation: Mohamed Arafa, Humanity Lost the Legend: Cherif Bassiouni, The Godfather of International Criminal Law and Justice , JURIST – Academic Commentary, Oct. 28, 2017,

This article was prepared for publication by Krista Grobelny, Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions ot comments to her at

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