Payam Akhavan, the accomplished Iranian-born law professor and practitioner of international criminal justice, is perhaps an unlikely candidate to guide the Canadian public in transcending apathy and materialism towards a more emphatic existence. Yet that is precisely what he has achieved through his surprisingly personal Massey Lecture, In Search of a Better World.
Akhavan has been on the front lines of efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity since his time as a Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague. He has witnessed the raw materials of mass atrocity -- the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines radio station serving as the mouthpiece of the Rwandan genocide -- and understands that grave breaches of international humanitarian law are usually preceded by public campaigns of hate. For the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, but rather with words -- as Canada’s Supreme Court has affirmed. As such, the current environment of rising polarization gives pause to someone like Akhavan who has witnessed the terrifying manifestations of intolerance left unchecked.
I have not yet had the chance to read Akhavan’s work, so will not attempt a review -- suffice it to say that it calls for transformation in two spheres, firstly at the level of the individual as we learn to find empathy with another’s suffering, and secondly through an “injection of social justice” within the system of global integration, which is facing unprecedented pressure to demonstrate its vitality.
At its core, Akhavan is expanding upon a mantra of his mentor and fellow McGill Faculty of Law colleague, Irwin Cotler, who repeats the teaching of his mother that “if you want to pursue justice, you have to feel the injustice about you.” We are eager to cloak ourselves in righteousness but not to take to action. There are important lessons here for journalists, who often leave people feeling powerless in the face of evil; and politicians, who have been known to compete over capacity to express remorse rather than capacity to act (he points to a partisan debate in the Canadian House of Commons about the plight of Yazidis as a particularly egregious example of mud-throwing).
Akhavan discovered empathy for human suffering as a teenager -- already quite comfortable in his new Canadian life -- while reading of the brutal murder of Mona, a Baha’i girl his own age from Shiraz. Mona was arrested and executed for the mere act of writing an essay on the persecution of her people and systematic violations of their freedom of conscience. Mona’s death “changed everything” and launched a quest to understand how evil takes shape. It was not long before Akhavan was working on the Yugoslavia tribunal, where he confronted peace advocates who feared international criminal justice would erode their efforts towards stability -- yet Akhavan continued to find evidence that post-conflict peace cannot be achieved without justice and ending impunity for the perpetrators of heinous crimes.
In recent days, Akhavan’s thoughts have drifted away from sites of acute terror and towards the current status in Kim Kardashian’s North America. He identifies deep despair among American intellectuals in the age of “the orange man in the White House” and is disdainful of the ‘Davos man’ who is so eager to join celebrities at panel discussions on global challenges, but not to “connect with the reality of human suffering” and feel the injustice inherent in the shocking socioeconomic inequality that Oxfam recently documented. He suggests the following antidote to despair: help others and, in doing so, retrieve one’s own authenticity. Later he added that being “spiritually reflective” is a crucial tool for maximizing our contributions in society.
Speaking of authenticity, what made Akhavan’s presentation so engaging was his ability to weave in glimpses of his integration into -- and embrace of -- Canada. He described his astonishment that Canadian shopkeepers were unwilling to haggle over prices and admitted that he would play house music at family gatherings, his elderly relatives singing along to the course language without understanding a word.
Akhavan’s call to action is resonating with Canadians from coast to coast, and Ottawa -- despite being excluded from the Massey Lectures tour -- was no exception, with Writersfest organizers having to add extra chairs in an already packed room. The Question and Answer period revealed a thoughtful and compassionate audience. The raw materials for a more empathic society are certainly present in our community, and they stand ready to be harnessed on an urgent basis -- not necessarily through the sort of grand campaigns for justice that have formed the bulk of Akhavan’s career, but also through Mother Theresa’s “small acts with great love.”