Internationally renowned human rights lawyer Payam Akhavan discusses his new book at LitFest
Part memoir, part call to action, 2017 CBC Massey Lecturer Payam Akhavan’s new book In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey brings realities of international human rights in the past 50 years to the forefront.
The timeliness of Akhavan’s book, published in early September, is visceral. His narrative shares a story of human heartbreak, which he articulates to require collective interdependence to address.
Previously, working as a UN prosecutor of war crimes at the Hague, Akhavan has seen violent Iranian revolution, Bosnian ethnic cleansing, Rwandan genocide, American carnage, and extreme terrorism in both his career and personal life.
Growing up in Tehran, Akhavan’s family was part of the Baha’i religious minority group that were marginalized and persecuted by Iran’s politically-powerful Muslim clergy during and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
With this lived experience, and as a defender of human rights, Akhavan has seen abhorrent acts of sickening proportions. Yet, the message he exhorts is one of empathy and action.
“Empathy isn’t a kind of kumbaya moment,” he says. “To me, it’s an existential struggle. It’s a kind of resistance against the oppression of our soul and what makes us human and what makes us want to build a just society.”
The journey Akhavan chose has been one of pain, but it’s that pain which sowed a resilience in him to continue on, despite defeats and setbacks.
“What I’ve come to realize is that it’s very easy to be idealistic when you haven’t been wounded. It’s when you’re wounded and disillusioned and disappointed and cynical, that’s when your ideas really take on meaning.”
He claims over and over that we’ve lost touch with what it is that motivates us to change the world by over-complicating the issues we collectively face, obscuring the simple human empathy that already exists.
Excessive lip service doesn’t correct a child’s persecution or a father’s death for the religion he chooses.
Rather than following what he calls a rather mediocre life spent on selfish pursuits, he decided to dedicate his life to finding justice and answers for the extreme acts he had seen at a young age.
“The problem with the world is not that we’re missing some brilliant theory that’s a kind of magic conception for all the problems of the world,” he says. “What we need to look at is why we say the right things but we hesitate to act when it really counts. I wanted to look at how to motivate people in a deep and lasting way. So I focused on empathy and emotional connection as a form of knowledge.”
In his book, Akhavan calls out the political rhetoric of “us versus them,” which is prevalent today. He finds that message extremely troubling and argues that apathy and cynicism in the political realm have “ripped the world apart.”
The response to this divisiveness is where his book stands out. He talks about times in his career when he’s been told his views are too naïve and that he doesn’t understand the reality of power.
“My answer to that is, well, to act in cynical and divisive ways is actually unrealistic—nevermind that they’re immoral—they’re unrealistic because in an inextricably interdependent world, in the long run we’re all going to suffer.”
Akhavan argues that in a world where “the idea of at home and abroad no longer exists,” the only real choice we have is to act on behalf of what benefits all of humanity because no one can separate themselves from the world anymore.
His idealism isn’t your average utopian dreamland, though Akhavan recognizes that often to choose what is best for humanity means losing something in the process.
An example he uses is how America has pushed Islamic fundamentalism to become instrumentalized for the sake of money.
“The support for the Mujahadeen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia (which is the biggest exporter of Wahhabist ideology in the world), the support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld assuring American support just as he [Hussein] was gassing Kurdish women and children in Halabja.
“When you talk to these ISIS captives as I did in Northern Iraq last summer, it’s very easy to demonize them and to say that they’re monsters, and in some ways, perhaps they are. But there’s a reason why they ended up so desperate, there’s a reason why it was so easy to brainwash them.”
“There’s a whole chain of incredibly cynical decisions that ended up creating the Islamic State.”
He says we must deal with the root causes of human rights problems, which stem from issues like the weaponizing of religions as well as our own complicity.
“When you turn a blind eye to the Saudis using petro-dollars to export the jihadist ideology throughout mosques in the world, guess what’s going to happen? But no one wants to offend them because there’s simply too much money at stake.”
Akhavan’s message never fails to bring our inextricable interdependence to the table, and he isn’t afraid to speak the truth he finds is needed to liberate.
Sun., Oct. 15 (1 pm)
In Search of a Better World
Metro Cinema ($12)