Conflict & Justice

War Crimes Investigator


Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni (Courtesy of De Paul University)

by Assia Boundaoui
In his long career as an international human rights law attorney, Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni has investigated four wars, and exposed numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity. From the former Yugoslavia to Rwanda, Bassiouni has born witness to some of the decades most atrocious crimes. He presided over contemporary times biggest rape investigation in the former Yugoslavia and was instrumental in proving that rape was used as a matter of policy during that war. Most recently Bassiouni was asked by the United Nations to investigate the conflict in Libya. His 92 page report to the UN found that the Gaddafi regime had engaged in crimes against humanity and numerous war crimes against Libyan civilians.

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But while figuring out what is or isn't a war crime may seem relatively straightforward, international criminal law is complex. Bassiouni says you have to sift through some of the most horrific personal stories and listen with a calculating — legal — ear. He says the key is knowing where to start.

"We started at the hospitals because it meant that we would deal with people who were injured and people who were injured would be either in the front lines or they would be the most likely victims of an abusive regime," says Bassiouni. "Then we had also two person teams on the border of Egypt and on the border of Tunisia, to talk not only to the refugees but refugee organizations to get a feeling and an understanding for what was happening."

War investigators do what journalists do; they interview people and collect stories in an attempt to get at the truth. Bassiouni says that while he listens to every person's story with empathy, he takes everything he hears with a grain of salt — because even victims sometimes lie. And sorting through the embellishments, falsehoods and fallibilities of human stories is the investigators primary job.

"Any historian will tell you, you never get the full picture, you get a sampling and from the sampling you write a bigger narrative," says Bassiouni.

Bassiouni and his team interviewed some three hundred people who had been involved in the war — from victims, to prisoners, to rebels, to government officials — in an attempt to piece together the bigger narrative in Libya. But Bassiouni says some of the smaller stories are what stayed with him, and there's one scene in particular that still haunts him.

"The scene of a ditch were there had been nine bodies and the nine bodies were all burned up and the nine bodies looked like they had all been children, they were five feet something each body. And as I started looking closer to the pictures and talking to the doctors who had done the medical reports, it turned out they were adults. Apparently these adults had been killed by a phosphorus bomb, and the phosphorus bomb basically burns everything in a person, it burns the skin, but it also burns the bones, it takes the liquid out of everything. And here are persons who had shrunk and were just a heap of burned ash. Horrible, horrible scenes. They weigh very heavily on one, after doing two years of interviewing victims and witnesses in the former Yugoslavia I wind up with a quadruple bypass because it was just too much emotionally to listen to."

After listening to a number of stories of unconscionable atrocities in Libya, Bassiouni concluded that crimes against humanity had been committed there. I asked Bassiouni to give me an example of one of the specific crimes he tracked down and how he was able to prove that a crime against humanity was committed.

"For example you go to a hospital and in the bed there is a little girl, four years old, who is injured, and there is a father sitting next to her and you say, "how was your baby injured?" And he said, "well I was standing in front of the house and my baby was playing next to me and suddenly out of nowhere a mortar shell came and mortar shrapnel hit my baby."

Bassiouni says after listening to a victim's story you must immediately corroborate whether its true. "So you go to the location and you see whether there was a trace of a mortar shell falling," says Bassiouni, "and you say okay where is this house from lets say the front. And you say well the front is several miles. Why would somebody be bombarding a civilian area, you're targeting a civilian population which is non-combatants, and that becomes a war crime. And when that pattern becomes repeated many times, this is not an occasional shell that somebody fired by mistake you know that there is a policy."

While Bassiouni's investigation may eventually be used by the International Criminal Court to prosecute members of the Gaddafi regime and military, its primary purpose was not to prosecute any crime. Rather, Bassiouni says the purpose of the investigation is set a historical record of what happened in Libya, and of equal importance, what didn't happen.

What made headlines recently was the charge that Gaddafi's troops were using rape as a weapon of war. But Bassiouni says during his investigation he found no evidence to prove this was true. And this friction between the sensational allegations that make headlines and the hard and sometimes unpopular truth, complicates the job of the war investigator. Bassiouni says when the dust settles, knowing and accepting what actually happened, is the Libyan people's only chance at reconciliation.

"You never can have reconciliation without having the truth established, says Bassiouni. "The problem is that you sometimes also have to debunk many of the allegations that are made which are exaggerated. For example recently there's been all sorts of allegations that there is a policy of mass rape that the Gaddafi regime has established. Well we don't know that, we found no basis for that. 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. We're ignoring the fact that some of these crimes are still ongoing. Not to say that its not important, it is important if its there. But it's not important if it's made up."

Bassionui says that while his job is primarily a legal one, he hopes that his investigation will serve something of a spiritual purpose as well. "A society must have closure," he says, "and you can't have that without knowing truth."