News Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration

Collaborator Spotlight! Leila Sadat & the Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration


James Carr Professor of International Criminal Law
Director of the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute
Special Adviser on Crimes Against Humanity to the
International Criminal Court Prosecutor
School of Law, Washington University in St. Louis
Faculty Scholar, Institute for Public Health

Bio: Leila Nadya Sadat is an internationally recognized authority in the fields of public international law, international criminal law, human rights, and foreign affairs. Notably, she is the Director of the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative, a ground-breaking project to write the world’s first global treaty on crimes against humanity.

Read more about her work.

The Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration caught up with Professor Sadat earlier this year to ask about her work and trajectory.

Tell us about your work related to human rights, gender and migration.

I work primarily on issues relating to the commission of atrocity crimes, particularly crimes against humanity. These are crimes that affect individuals on every continent and involve widespread or systematic attacks against entire populations. They affect men and women, children and the elderly, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, and typically arise when there is a situation involving weak institutions, ruthless individuals in leadership positions, and media incitement. I am largely a doctrinal scholar, working on the legal questions involved in establishing and evaluating institutional frameworks to address these crimes. I write books and articles, attend trials, convene meetings in the U.S. and abroad, and have the privilege of working alongside international justice advocates, judges, and prosecutors in the pursuit of accountability for these crimes. I have the honor to now serve as one of the advisers to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, advising her office on legal and practical questions relating to the prosecution and investigation of crimes against humanity.

In 1998, I participated in the Rome Diplomatic Conference that led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court, as well as the preparatory meetings prior to Rome, and much of my work involves both supporting the Court as an Institution and offering critiques when problems arise. Being present at the “birth” of the Court was a life-changing experience for me. I try to bring that perspective into my law classes at Wash U, to give our students a sense of the larger global human rights community we are connected to. One of the projects I am proudest of is my effort to draft the world’s first global convention on crimes against humanity. It is now sitting in the United Nations General Assembly, awaiting action by the international community.

Professor Sadat with Special Advisers at the launch of the ICC Prosecutor’s Policy on Children

How did you get started in this work?

Prior to moving to St. Louis, I worked as a commercial lawyer in Paris, France. One day, an article in the Clunet came across my desk about a man named “Paul Touvier,” who had been accused of committing crimes against humanity in France during World War II. The French courts had thrown out the case and a public outcry ensued. A contemporaneous police report placed Touvier at a crime scene where he had ordered French forces to gun down civilians because they were Jewish, in addition to many other alleged crimes. Touvier was ultimately convicted of the crime after several legal ins and outs. Hearing the testimony of the victims who received some modicum of justice after literally waiting decades made an enormous impact upon me. It was 1993 and I decided to write about the case. I became involved with the international justice movement that had just started with the war in Bosnia and establishment of the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as very few people were working on crimes against humanity. Later, I chaired the International Law Association (ILA) Committee on the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the American Branch, and worked with my mentor, the late Cherif Bassiouni, for many years on the ICC and other justice issues. It was all quite unexpected.

What is one myth/misconception most people have about the issue you work on?

Americans are often ill-informed about international institutions including the UN, the ICC, and other international courts and tribunals. They tend to be either skeptical about their utility, seeing them as weak and ineffective, or are hostile to them, seeing them as too strong and a constraint on American power. Yet the reality is more complicated. Sometimes international institutions are very effective, which benefits all countries, including the US. These institutions can create a more peaceful and stable environment, meaning fewer refugees, better trade, and economic benefits all around. Moreover, their effectiveness is directly tied to state support. To paraphrase former US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, blaming the UN for a problem is like blaming the stadium when your team doesn’t win. The UN is a building; the states (including the US) make up the team roster. Americans accept the need for courts and justice at the domestic level, but sometimes don’t make that connection at the international law level. That is frustrating to me. We ought to be out there playing the game, trying to be the MVP, not sitting on the bench booing!

Tell us about one connection between research, policy, and practice that you have seen in your work.

That is a hard question. I work on a lot of very long-term projects that involve normative and/or institutional development. So they take a long time to bear fruit, and one must have a lot of faith that they will ultimately do so. In a way, human rights advocacy and international justice work are trying to change the way people think, which is a tall order. I have seen the impact of my scholarly writings on the jurisprudence of the ICC in what I think is a positive way and have been happy to help the Office of the Prosecutor as much as possible with respect to specific cases and questions. The work I have done on definitional questions about crimes against humanity has been influential in keeping the elements of that crime flexible enough to respond to new manifestations of criminality (such as groups like ISIS), while still respecting the rights of the accused. I have also done some important work on forms of criminal participation with respect to sexual and gender-based violence that I hope will make those crimes easier to prosecute.

What would be your dream project or collaboration, and why?

In a way, I already have my dream project, which is the crimes against humanity convention that I have been working on with a team of dedicated individuals for more than a decade. The fulfillment of that dream would be a diplomatic conference to adopt the treaty, and its subsequent ratification by states and entry into force. I hope that happens in my lifetime. I also want to work on domestic projects to educate Americans about the importance of international law, international institutions and international justice.

About Spotlights: The Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration publishes a monthly Spotlight Series where you can meet Washington University faculty and students, as well as outside experts, practitioners, and policymakers working at the intersection of human rights, gender, and migration issues. To read more, return to the Featured Collaborators page.

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