What Drives War Crimes Investigator Cherif Bassiouni?

September 20, 2011 | Lauren Feeney and Pamela Hogan

Cherif Bassiouni was a six-year-old boy growing up in Cairo when the Second World War came to North Africa. A diplomat’s son, he remembers one day a Jewish man came by to speak with his father, a Muslim, about the situation in Palestine.

“He took his jacket off, peeled his shirt off, and he had a number tattooed on his arm,” Bassiouni remembers. “Now, of course, I was behind the curtain, because I wasn’t supposed to be there, and sort of eavesdropped on the conversation, about people being taken to gas chambers, and — and people massively killed. As a child, it really shocked me.” This was in 1943, before the outside world knew what was happening inside Hitler’s Germany.

That same week, Bassiouni recalls, was one of the biggest German air raids over Cairo. It was a moonlit night, and he went out into the street with his little toy gun and pointed it at the sky. “I want to shoot down Uncle Hitler,” he told his mother. “He’s a bad man.”

“In a strange way, getting at the bad Uncle Hitler has been the motor of my life,” says the now gray-haired, bespectacled Bassiouni in an accent that’s part Cairo, part Chicago.

Often referred to as “the father of international criminal law,” Bassiouni has since headed up war crimes investigations in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq and more recently Libya. Currently, he’s chairing a commission that’s examining charges of torture during weeks of pro-democracy protests in Bahrain.

In 1992, Bassiouni was teaching at DePaul University’s International Human Rights Law Institute as he’d been for nearly 30 years when he got a call from the undersecretary general of the U.N. asking him to join a commission investigating war crimes in the Balkans. The war still raging, he packed his bags and headed to Bosnia.

Bassiouni counted skulls as they were pulled out of a mass grave, marched in a candle-lit vigil with widows and children, was taken hostage and even shot at. But he’s visibly moved when telling the story of a 12-year-old girl he met in a medical clinic in Sarajevo:

The girl was one of three rape victims he met that day. The other two were older girls, in their teens, “very nicely dressed with a little bit of makeup,” Bassiouni notes, an important detail because this was in the middle of the siege of Sarajevo — there wasn’t even running water — so their composed appearance was, to his mind, “an extraordinary statement of people who want to assert their human dignity.”

The young women told Bassiouni that they had been captured by Serb militias and held for eight months, during which time they were raped repeatedly by their captors. They were also used as maids in their homes and forced to have sex with whomever happened by.

“As I heard the story — you know, it’s impossible to describe how chilling it is. It’s the total annihilation of human dignity,” Bassiouni says. “I was vacillating between horror and admiration. And I said, “Well, do you realize that what you’re telling me, you’re gonna have to testify in court.” And they said, “Yes. We will.”

This encounter led Bassiouni to pursue the largest rape investigation in history, uncovering a campaign of mass rape intended to shame and scare people out of their homes and villages.

At first, “I didn’t know whether I could prove that there was a policy of systematic rape which was part of the policy of ethnic cleansing,” Bassiouni says. So, he started to look for patterns. In one case, he found that 17 girls, all from the same high school, had been raped by their classmates. Why their classmates, he wondered, rather than soldiers? Then it dawned on him: “You’re getting their classmates to rape them, which means these girls will never be able to come back to these same classes. Which means the parents will have to move. Which means you’re achieving ethnic cleansing.”

Bassiouni’s commission turned over a 3,500 page report to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia or ICTY — an institution he helped create. The tribunal was groundbreaking. Sexual violence against women was declared a crime against humanity for the first time in the history of international law. The first of its kind since Nuremberg, the tribunal ultimately led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002.

Bassiouni’s dedication to the victims is matched only by his commitment to the truth. Earlier this year, he was asked to investigate human rights abuses in Libya. The current head of the ICC, Luis-Moreno Ocampo, said there was evidence that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had been encouraging the use of rape as a weapon among his troops, and had even distributed Viagra “to enhance the possibility of rape.” But Bassiouni found that these allegations were the result of “massive hysteria.”

The allegations seem to stem from the work of Dr. Seham Sergewa, a Libyan psychologist who claims to have sent out 70,000 questionnaires to which she received 60,000 responses, including at least 259 people who said they had been raped. Bassiouni doubts the story — how were the questionnaires distributed and returned when there isn’t even a functioning postal system in the country?

While Bassiouni found no evidence of widespread systematic rape, he did find evidence of torture, murder and illegal detention.

“The problem is that you sometimes also have to debunk many of the allegations that are made which are exaggerated. As people get so attached to, ‘well was there or wasn’t there a policy of mass rape,’ we are ignoring the fact that 15,000 people have been killed,” Bassiouni told PRI’s The World.

Bassiouni was able to confirm three cases of rape perpetrated by combatants in Libya. One of those is the well-reported case of Iman al Obeidy, who risked her life by bursting into Tripoli’s Rixos hotel to share her story with the foreign journalists gathered there. Obeidy was dragged out of the hotel by government security forces and held in an undisclosed location until she fled to Tunisia and eventually made her way to the U.S. where she’s been granted refugee status. But in all the reporting on Obeidy’s story, it was never quite clear how she managed to escape from Libya.

Turns out, Bassiouni says, it was (at least in part) thanks to him. On his last day in Tripoli, after scouring the country looking for victims of human rights violations, Bassiouni managed to reach Obeidy on the phone in her apartment, where she was being held under house arrest. “I’m going to get you out of there, don’t despair,” he told her. Obeidy wasn’t sure — she’d received such assurances before. Bassiouni says he called Qaddafi’s foreign minister and persuaded him to give Obeidy safe passage to the Tunisian border. He calls it one of his prouder moments, up there with securing the release of 198 prisoners arrested during recent protests in Bahrain, or over 800 people who had been unjustly detained in Afghanistan.

But he’s proudest, he says, of his work in the former Yugoslavia.

As a war crimes investigator, Bassiouni exposes all manner of crimes against humanity, but he seems particularly outraged by crimes that target women.

“You know,” he says, “I’m in my 70s, I’m a Muslim, I come from the Arab World, I’m from another generation. And yet I have to tell you, I’m absolutely shocked and dismayed and amazed by the totally lack of sensitivity to the plight of women in war, and particularly the raping of women, in war, after war, after war, and how little attention is paid to it.”