Passing of M. Cherif Bassiouni, “the Godfather of International Criminal Law”



The Coalition for the International Criminal Court would like to share in expressing our profound sadness at the passing of Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni. “Cherif was truly one of the world’s greatest experts of international law and justice.  He was a true champion of the International Criminal Court and long-time supporter of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court,” said William R. Pace, Coalition Convenor.

Cherif Bassiouni was a founding member of both the prestigious Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights (ISISC) and DePaul’s International Human Rights Law Institute.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Bassiouni was appointed to 22 United Nations positions, including the Chair of the Commission of Inquiry for Libya, Chair of the Drafting Committee of the Diplomatic Conference on the Establishment of the International Criminal Court, and Vice-Chair of both the General Assembly’s Preparatory Committee on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court and the General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court.

His work on documenting atrocities committed in the Former Yugoslavia as the Chair of the Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 to Investigate Violations of International Humanitarian Law and the Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Gathering and Analysis of the Facts resulted in the prosecution of hundreds of high-level perpetrators, including Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Among his numerous awards, distinctions, and honorary degrees, Bassiouni was the recipient of the William J. Butler Human Rights Medal, awarded to four of the major contributors to the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC): Hans Corell, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and Legal Counsel of the United Nations; Philippe Kirsch, Chairman of the Committee of the Whole; William Pace, Convenor of the CICC, and Bassiouni himself, Chairman of the Drafting Committee.

In a statement, the ICC called Professor Bassiouni “a motivated and inspiring defender of the importance of international criminal justice to building sustainable peace,” adding that “the world has lost one of the icons of international justice.  He will be sorely missed.”

In response to the news, many Coalition members expressed their sorrow and remembrances:

Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch noted his Many memories of Cherif–his dynamic…as the Chair of the Former Yugoslavia Commission of Experts [predecessor to the ICTY], the essential work he did through the Siracusa Institute on the Draft Statute of the ICC, his role in Rome as Chair of the Drafting Committee….his scholarly contributions…quite an amazing role and a remarkable person.”

“We are joining others in remembering and honoring Cherif Bassiouni — an extraordinary man who has made an incredible and unique contribution to this field, especially during the negotiations and the early work of the Tribunals,” said Brigid Inder, Executive Director of Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice. “He was a wonderful orator — intelligent, urbane, and inspiring. We were so lucky to have had him.”

Niccolò Figà-Talamanca of No Peace Without Justice described him as “unfailingly considerate, elegant and generous of spirit…He's been a great promoter of international justice, with real depth on the issues, but also the flair to move things forward. Richard mentioned his crucial role in building political momentum for the ICTY. Then, in Rome he played his role masterfully, as Chair of a drafting committee that he purposefully designed to be in part a place to keep certain parts of the text moving at the right pace, so that the deals could be struck - even if somewhere else. A great mover and strong advocate on our side during the ratification campaign, you could really count on him to explain things clearly policymakers, and to make an impression.”

“We at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) also remember his bold and pioneering leadership on the Commission of Inquiry that preceded the establishment of the ICTY,” added Susannah Sirkin, Director of International Policy and Partnerships & Senior Advisor at PHR. “He commissioned and received the reports of the pivotal preliminary forensic investigation of the mass grave at Ovcara, carried out by a small PHR team of experts and which led eventually to the prosecution of the notorious Vukovar Hospital massacre, and more.”

David Donat Cattin, Secretary-General of Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA) shared his personal experience with Professor Bassiouni saying, “He introduced me to PGA, and I will never forget his generosity and charisma…..He was one of the greatest scholars and leaders in our field. He will be missed by many.”

“Yes [he was] from another time,” notes Karine Bonneau, Head of the International Justice Desk of FIDH, “...so many important memories in NY, Rome and Siracusa, one of the persons without whom we would certainly not being doing [what we are all doing] today.”

John Washburn, Convenor of the American Non-Governmental Organizations Coalition for the ICC remembered “his extraordinary energy, the scope and power of his intellect and his dedication and pragmatism in the pursuit of his vision, values and ideals. I am especially grateful and impressed by his thoughtfulness and understanding in helping me with the book Fanny Benedetti, Karine Bonneau and I wrote on the negotiations for the Rome Statute. Perhaps his least known and most important contribution to the success of the negotiations was his inspired service as chairman of the drafting committee. Under his direction, it bought together the bits and pieces of text from working groups into a coherent and integrated Statute.”

Yael Danieli said, “Yes, friends, this is a very sad loss.  He was so full of life.  And a great friend of victims, formally from the original meeting planning the victim declaration in Ottawa in 1984, through the remedy resolution...and in so many places around the world...He will be greatly missed.” 

Please feel free to share your thoughts and memories in the comments section.