UN prosecutor and legal scholar Payam Akhavan recently shared his passion for human rights at a lecture in St. John’s. It was part of a series of lectures to be broadcast on the CBC Radio show Ideas this week, November 6 – 10.
UN prosecutor and human rights scholar Payam Akhavan is sharing what he calls a “surprising message of hope” through the CBC Massey Lectures this year.
Akhavan describes his five-part lecture series and book In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey as “part memoir, part history, and part call to action.”
In Search of a Better World was the number one bestselling Canadian non-fiction book during the week of Oct. 8-14, according to CBC.
Akhavan’s lectures are distinguished by a more personal format, which includes storytelling and reflection on pivotal moments in his life. Hugh Segal, retired Senator and Master of Massey College, commented that the lectures demonstrate that human rights is about lived experience. In the book, Akhavan uses personal examples to show how feeling injustice helps motivate someone to fight for justice.
“Feeling injustice is an intimate experience,” he says. “It’s an emotional and spiritual connection with the suffering of others.”
Her death inspired a passion for human rights
Akhavan’s first lecture “The knowledge of suffering” recalls a pivotal moment in his life in which he felt the effects of injustice: the execution of 16-year-old Mona Mahmudnizhad, an educator of children and a defender of human rights, on June 19, 1983 in Shiraz Iran for her Bahá’í beliefs. At the time of her death, Akhavan was also 16.
“This was not a passing sound bite in the television news, an unfortunate event in a distant place, an abstract victim soon to be forgotten,” he writes. “This was an intimate, lived experience; it sliced through my complacency like a knife.”
“Mona’s death changed everything,” he writes. “I would never be the same person again.”
Mona’s death, as well as hearing of the deaths and suffering of close Bahá’í friends at the hands of the Iranian government, inspired Akhavan to study international human rights law at Harvard University. He also made the decision that rather than “defining success by the trappings of status and wealth,” he would try to fulfill Mona’s last wish that youth should arise to serve humanity. Akhavan became the youngest-ever war crimes prosecutor at the age of 26.
When asked about how the Bahá’í Faith shaped his life and work, Akhavan says that Mona and others in the Bahá’í community have taught him that leadership is by example and that faith consists of “fewness of words and abundance of deeds.”
“This is the essence of what I’m trying to convey in these lectures,” he says. “The world doesn’t need more talking, the world needs people who are going to rise up and champion the cause of human rights.”
Bahá’í ideals shape all five lectures
While the first lecture of the book focuses on Akhavan’s formative experiences as an Iranian Bahá’í, he says that Bahá’í ideals shape all five lectures. Some of the principles that he sees as key to his thinking are the oneness of humankind, and the essential nobility of human beings, “that basic assumption that we are not incorrigibly selfish and aggressive creatures, that there’s a duality to human nature, and that the purpose of civilization is to unlock the potential that exists within us.”
Akhavan sees a deep-rooted conviction in the oneness of humankind as the antidote to extreme violence and an important component of a culture of human rights.
“If we do not create a deep-seated conviction in the oneness of humankind, then we will have a kind of superficial veneer of civility, but underneath the forces of greed, hatred and violence are lurking and in times of political turmoil they will come to the surface.”
He notes that these dark forces appeared in Rwanda during a time of economic hardship preceding the genocide, and that now in Western countries “the spectre of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists and the possibility of violence and race wars” show that perhaps ideals of equality are not as deeply held as some might imagine them to be.
He also says that it is necessary for an intellectual understanding of the interdependence of all people to be accompanied by a motivation to act. Akhavan says that the reality that we are one people inhabiting one planet is not some “naïve feel good ideal,” rather it’s a “hard and painful reality,” as can be seen through an analysis of a host of global issues such as climate change, economic stability, migrant flows, the control of organized crime, or the spread of disease.
To go beyond an intellectual understanding of the common humanity of all people requires the creation of a culture that “uncaps our spiritual potential, rather than a culture that breeds selfishness and aggression,” says Mr. Akhavan, who explores this topic in further detail in his last lecture “The spirit of human rights.”
“We’ve created the idea that we will achieve progress through unbridled consumption, through the glorification of greed,” Akhavan adds, “And now we somehow want to reconcile that culture of greed and self-indulgence with a culture of human rights and the two are on a collision course.”
Human beings can choose a different path
Akhavan believes that humans have a choice about the type of culture that is fostered, since they are capable of both selfishness and selflessness, polar opposite qualities that Akhavan has seen firsthand in his work.
“I have encountered everything from war criminals and suicide bombers to survivors of genocide and people who have sacrificed their lives fighting for justice and human betterment,” he says. “When you see these extremes you realize that we’re capable of both radical evil and radical nobility.”
In striving to comprehend what makes people choose to participate in acts of unspeakable evil, Akhavan is heartened by the fact that mass atrocities such as ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia or the Rwandan genocide were not inevitable.
“I try to dissect and expose the anatomy of mass violence by showing how artificial it is, how the mass atrocities that we witness in the world are not like a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a tsunami, they are manmade disasters, they are the result of political choices, and it actually takes tremendous amounts of planning and preparation to rip multi-ethnic societies apart,” says Akhavan. He notes that for mass atrocities to occur, the masses need to be subject to hate propaganda, and that they need to be organized and mobilized.
Since the great evils of our time are in a certain sense predictable, they are therefore preventable, according to Akhavan. This gives human beings the choice to choose a different path.
The 2017 CBC Massey Lectures were delivered in front of live audiences in a cross-Canada tour, between September 13 and October 4, 2017. Akhavan appeared at Memorial University’s D.F. Cook Recital Hall on Sept. 22, delivering his lecture entitled “The Oneness of Humanity.”
The lectures are collected in Akhavan’s new book In Search of a Better World, published by House of Anansi Press.
They will be broadcast on CBC IDEAS between November 6 – 10, 2017.