FEATURES • Fall 2001

Law Professor Leila Nadya Sadat's work focuses on building a permanent international criminal court—to prosecute, and possibly prevent, international atrocities.

By Nancy Mays

When Professor of Law Leila Nadya Sadat was pondering ideas for her first peer-review paper—the showcase that would determine tenure—she could have chosen a safe topic, more predictable than provocative. Instead, Sadat was drawn to the tale of Paul Touvier, a Frenchman who in 1994 was convicted by his own government of "crimes against humanity" during World War II. Though the case had the high intrigue of a page-turner, Sadat was most interested in its implications for international criminal law: how and why a country would prosecute one of its own citizens for wartime activities 50 years later.

Still, exploring the topic was risky on two fronts. First, it was an emotionally charged case—many of the victims were still alive. And from a legal perspective, the case carried a fair amount of controversy. The parameters for prosecuting heinous international crimes have always been hotly debated in legal and political circles.

"It was a big piece that wasn't considered safe to write for tenure. But it got the attention of a lot of people in international law," says Sadat.

In fact, the paper became the definitive source on the Touvier case. It also roused the international legal community to revisit the various arguments surrounding global crimes against humanity. For Sadat, the work opened doors. After the paper was published, she was asked by the American branch of the International Law Association to chair its committee on the establishment of a permanent international court. She has lectured on the topic in Europe and the United States, and she has published numerous articles and essays, including one in the treatise, International Criminal Law. Her book on the international criminal court, The International Criminal Court and the Transformation of International Law: Justice for the New Millennium, will be published this year.

School of Law Dean Joel Seligman says Sadat has emerged as one of the most thoughtful and prolific voices in the jurisprudence of international criminal law.

"Her passion for a new international criminal court as well as her wisdom in discussing how such a court should operate make her an outstanding scholar on our faculty," says Seligman, who is also the Ethan A.H. Shepley University Professor.

The world's struggle to form an international criminal court can be traced back to the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, when 22 Nazi war criminals were prosecuted for various crimes against humanity. Proponents of an international criminal court hoped the trials would serve as a type of model for a permanent war crimes tribunal. Such a court would prosecute crimes that threaten international peace or those committed by heads of state in the course of a war. Perhaps Nuremberg would have led to such a court but the Cold War mushroomed, squashing any hope for a unified front.

"Nothing could get done through the United Nations then," says Sadat.

But when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War evaporated, the United Nations decided the time was right to pursue the establishment of a court. Trinidad and Tobago initiated the move over their growing concern about narcoterrorism. Then the need intensified after war broke out in the former Yugoslavia and reports of genocide in Rwanda spread. Ad hoc tribunals were formed to investigate allegations in both hot spots, but without the support of a formal international criminal tribunal.

During the summer of 2000, the United Nations organized a conference on the establishment of an international criminal court, where a statute for a proposed court was adopted. Sadat participated in the Rome event as a nonvoting delegate. The conference, she says, was extraordinary, involving representatives of 160 countries and observers from about 250 nongovernmental agencies, united in their effort to build a court that would prosecute—and possibly prevent—international atrocities.

After five weeks, a statute for the court was adopted 120 to 7, with 21 countries abstaining. The United States voted against the statute—a move Sadat calls a "travesty."

"The stated reasons were that the treaty was flawed because it would permit the court to exercise jurisdiction over U.S. nationals without the permission of the U.S. government. It was an arrogant move. The United States was instrumental in stopping the Nazi regime. The U.S. government laid the foundation for international peace by hosting the San Francisco conference that led to the establishment of the United Nations. So turning its back on the treaty was, well, unbelievable," says Sadat.

"The United States went against the international consensus on an issue supporting human rights. That does a lot to damage the government's credibility," she continues. Although President Clinton ultimately signed the statute, the Bush administration is opposed to the court and has no plans to submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification.

Sadat's passion for international affairs should come as no surprise. Though she grew up in New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, her home life was rich in cultural diversity. Both of her parents were university professors: her mother an American expert in history; her father a Syrian who taught computer science. Her family name, Sadat, reflects a noble heritage. She is a distant cousin of Anwar Sadat and the granddaughter of a Syrian physician whose patients included Middle Eastern royalty. She speaks fluent French and is conversational in Italian and Arabic.

She initially planned to follow in her grandfather's footsteps and practice medicine. But as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, she served on a committee exploring whether the university should divest its holdings in South Africa. True to form, Sadat chose her own path, risky or not, and wrote a dissent after the committee decided to keep its investments. The prophetic experience led her to law school, where she graduated first in her class from Tulane University in 1985. After clerking for a judge, Sadat pursued an LL.M. degree at Columbia University, where she was awarded a fellowship to study abroad. The experience proved pivotal to her career. She went to France where she earned a doctoral diploma in law at the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1988, then clerked for the French Supreme Court. After that experience, she practiced commercial law in three prestigious French firms before returning to the United States in 1992, where she began teaching at the law school.

"I really wanted to go into teaching," says Sadat, who recently was nominated by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt—and approved by Congress—to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "I felt the time was right. Several schools were interested in me, but the people here were the nicest. Plus, I sensed an openness to building something here. The law school was poised to expand, and I like challenges like that."

Professor Leila Sadat has helped expand international opportunities for students. While a law student, Gilbert Sison (left), J.D. '00, competed in the Philip C. Jessup International Moot Court Competition under Sadat's guidance.


Sadat's research has helped expand the School of Law's international curriculum—the School's Institute for Global Legal Studies is building an impressive reputation. But she's also helped expand opportunities for students. Over the past few years, Sadat has given the University a dynamic presence at the Philip C. Jessup International Moot Court Competition, one of the most prestigious such events in the world. In the past, the School's presence at the competition was uneven, at best. Under Sadat's tutelage, the University's team has won the Midwest Regional Championship for the past three years and is now considered a contender for the international crown.

"I became involved in judging the international rounds of the competition, and I saw how intense and meaningful an experience it was for the students. There are 72 teams from all over the world competing for a week. It's just amazing. I thought: 'Wouldn't it be nice if our students could be involved in this,'" she says.

In Sadat's pioneering fashion, she pitched the idea of building a team to her fellow faculty members, who gave their enthusiastic support. The competition requires substantial faculty involvement, says Sadat, so she found a mentor—a well-respected coach from Singapore—to give her a primer on how to build a team. Each year, she handpicks a team of five, who commit to immersing themselves in international law and to improving their oral advocacy skills. Despite the nation's plethora of top law schools, the United States has not won the competition in 13 years. Mostly, says Sadat, because the United States is such a self-sufficient entity that international law is seen as "no big deal." Students from other countries, however, come primed.

"They are steeped in international law. They have outstanding advocacy skills. And they give the Americans a very hard time," she says.

Former student Gilbert Sison, J.D. '00, now an attorney with Bryan Cave in St. Louis, counts the Jessup competition among his most meaningful student experiences. In fact, Sison now helps coach the team and serves as an adjunct assistant professor.

"Her devotion to the students is nothing short of outstanding," Sison says. "She has high expectations, but also a quiet faith in each student's abilities. A strong emphasis is placed on excellence and achievement, but for Professor Sadat, the competition is always first and foremost a learning experience. That's what makes her a true educator, in every sense of the word."

Nancy Mays is a free-lance writer based in Lenexa, Kansas.


"Her [Sadat's] passion for a new international criminal court as well as her wisdom in discussing how such a court should operate make her an outstanding scholar on our faculty," says Joel Seligman, dean of the School of Law.