Cherif was a truly global citizen. Brilliant, creative, hardworking and skilled in international diplomacy and foreign languages (he was fluent in at least six), he was “the father” of international criminal law. From the Torture Convention to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, his fingerprints are on every major international criminal law instrument of the past fifty years, including the emerging new convention on crimes against humanity. As a scholar, Cherif wrote and edited seventy-five books and several hundred law review articles in Arabic, English, French, Italian and Spanish. His publications were repeatedly cited as authority by the Yugoslavia Tribunal, the Rwanda Tribunal, and the United States Supreme Court, and were always thoroughly researched, beautifully written and copiously footnoted.
Education was Cherif’s passion. He joined the faculty at DePaul College of Law in 1964, where he taught until very recently, and founded the International Human Rights Law Institute there. In 1974, he was elected Secretary-General of the International Association of Penal Law. After being re-elected twice he was elevated to the post of President of the 3,000 member international organization for a 15-year term. His involvement was integral in establishing the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Science in Siracusa, Italy, which he headed until 2015. Under Cherif’s leadership, the Institute trained more than 48,000 jurists from over 167 countries.
While still teaching at DePaul, Cherif began to commit much of his work to the United Nations. He was appointed to co-chair a Committee of Experts tasked with drafting an anti-torture treaty. Much of this draft found its way into the 1984 International Convention Against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment. Cherif continued his work with the United Nations, accepting the Secretary-General’s request that he Chair the Commission of Experts which the Security Council established in 1992 to investigate atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. Under his leadership, the Commission issued a 3,500-page report detailing the ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the war. Cherif traveled throughout the former Yugoslavia, exhuming mass graves, interviewing victims and witnesses, determined to uncover and publicize the truth. He uncovered the campaign of mass rapes that had occurred during the war and the Commission identified more than 150 mass graves in which as many as 3,000 bodies were found, many of whom had been tortured or raped.
Cherif often told me of the emotional and upsetting encounters he had with the victims of atrocity crimes in Bosnia, and of several instances during which his life was endangered as a result of his investigations. He labored tirelessly, against great odds, to bring the victims’ stories to light and to obtain justice for their sufferings. The Commission’s report ultimately led to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which in turn sparked a renaissance in the field of international criminal justice.
Cherif subsequently served as Vice-Chair of the UN General Assembly Ad Hoc Committee to Establish an International Criminal Court in the mid-1990s and participated in the Preparatory Committee established to prepare a draft Statute for the Court. When the Diplomatic Conference opened in Rome, Cherif was chosen as the Chair of the Drafting Committee and set about the challenge of developing a widely acceptable text for the treaty establishing the ICC. I went to Rome in 1998 at Cherif’s urging, and had the opportunity not only to observe the negotiations first-hand, but to speak with him often as they were ongoing. He regularly took time out of his busy schedule to dine with me and a small group of other American colleagues, enjoying camaraderie and fellowship even as the grueling weeks of diplomatic wrangling wore on. Cherif never gave up on his dream of creating a permanent international criminal court, and saw every obstacle as an opportunity to move the ball forward, an important lesson I learned from him. On July 17, 1998, a treaty establishing a new, permanent International Criminal Court was adopted. Although the establishment of the Court was the result of thousands of individuals working to that end all over the world, I very much believe that Cherif’s contribution was critically important and that without his leadership the Court would not now exist.
In 1999, Cherif was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global justice. In 2003, the French government awarded him the Legion of Honor, in 2007 the Dutch Government awarded him the prestigious Hague Prize, and in 2010 the Harris Institute bestowed upon him the World Peace Through Law Award. These are just a few of the accolades Cherif received over the years, a list that also includes several honorary doctorates, the Order of Merit of Austria, Egypt, France, Germany and Italy, the Special Award of the Council of Europe, Defender of Democracy Award, The Adlai Stevenson Award of the United Nations Association, and the Saint Vincent DePaul Humanitarian Award. In recognition of his extraordinary contributions, not only to the world, but to his adopted City of Chicago, a street there is now named in his honor.
Cherif once wrote that “the pursuit of truth and justice requires, among other things, moral courage, at times physical courage, the strength to overcome fear, and fighting off the temptations of reward for ignoring wrongs. It also requires determination, willingness to sacrifice, a sense of honor and dignity, and perseverance when things seem impossible.” He had all these qualities and more. He was also a devoted husband and father to his stepchildren, he loved music and art, and in spite of his immersion in a field addressing the darkest deeds of humankind, was a bon vivant who laughed easily, smiled readily, and enjoyed the company of friends.
Cherif was a man of deep and abiding faith. He often included the following three quotes in his writings, which appeared in his last email to us, written before his death, but sent after his passing:
“If you see a wrong, you must right 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.”
“If you want peace, work for justice.”
-Pope Paul IV
“The world rests on three pillars: on truth, on justice and on peace.”
-Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel
These scriptures were Cherif’s North Star, principles that he cleaved to even when the world was dark and hope seemed faint.
Farewell, dear friend, we miss your light in the world, but take comfort in the knowledge that you now rest in peace. I and countless others were blessed to know and work with you, and they, like me, will carry on your work, so that one day peace and justice might prevail on this earth.
“Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts
Where no storm or night or pain can reach you
. . . .
May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.”
On the death of the beloved
Leila Nadya Sadat
St. Louis, Missouri, September 28, 2017