Remembering Cherif Bassiouni, Human Rights Pioneer | WBEZ
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Remembering Cherif Bassiouni, Human Rights Pioneer

Cherif Bassiouni, one of the fathers of international criminal and human rights law, died in Chicago on Monday. He was 79.

Most recently, Bassiouni served as professor of law and president emeritus of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University. He was a guest on Worldview dozens of times, given his personal experience prosecuting war crimes.

Bassiouni served on several U.N. commissions, most notably as chairman of U.N. Commission to Investigate International Humanitarian Law Violations in the former Yugoslavia. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in this area. A native of Egypt, he cared about democratic development and human rights in his home country.

Worldview host Jerome McDonnell sat down with Bassiouni’s friend and mentee, Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago Office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Jerome McDonnell: Tell us a little more about the Cherif you know you.

Ahmed Rehab: He was essentially the godfather of human rights, and specifically, international criminal law. He gave lectures, wrote books, articles, received honorary degrees, awards, and honorary citizenship. But beyond the pomp and the veneer, he was always a man who was studious, laborious, loving. He cared about connecting personally with everybody he met. His incredible charisma was sort really the legendary aspect.

McDonnell: Most people know his work with the United Nations, which asked him to gather evidence of war crimes in Bosnia. This work effectively changed the field of international law.

Rehab: The international diplomatic establishment was not very interested in prosecuting the crimes in Bosnia. So being who he was — defiant and committed — he did it his way. He raised funds himself, he put together a team, and went there. He finally convinced them to take in the results of his investigation and prosecute up to 67,000 cases of rape and assault. He also prosecuted hundreds of people including the top guy, Slobodan Milošević.

These lawsuits helped establish sexual violence against women was a crime against humanity. This is what one of his main contributions to the field of international criminal law. He also was one of the founding fathers of the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.

McDonnell: Tell us more about your personal relationship.

Rehab: He spoke seven languages fluently. He was at home in Egypt, France, Italy, the United States, and Germany. He was a man of the universe, an enlightened luminary. He was, by culture, multicultural.

When I was a graduate student at DePaul University — not in law school, but studying computer science — I just walked up to his office and knocked on his door. He welcomed me and answered all of my questions about politics, religion, law, and human rights; and never asked me why I was there.

And that day, I got into his life and never walked out. He was sort of father figure and mentor to me over the last 20 years. We traveled together, and I learned so much from him. As a matter of fact, I would say that my work in the civil rights arena was inspired by his example. He really mentored an entire universe of young people.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. It was adapted for the web by Julian Hayda. Click the ‘play’ button above to hear the entire segment.

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