How to build a better, bolder and braver world in 2018

Payam Akhavan, this year’s CBC Massey lecturer, on what is needed
to guard against the ‘catastrophic toll’ of ignoring global injustices — from a
strengthened ICC to more political risk-taking on crimes against the Rohingya

By: /
18 December, 2017
Portrait of Payam Akhavan. Credit: Sami Chouhdary
Catherine Tsalikis
By: Catherine Tsalikis
Former Senior Editor, Open Canada.

When human rights lawyer Payam Akhavan received a call from the executive producer of CBC Ideas telling him he had been chosen to deliver the 2017 Massey Lectures, the world looked very different: Barack Obama was still in the White House, and the United States had yet to elect Donald Trump, who, as Akhavan puts it, would “radically change our perception of reality.”

As 2016 drew to a close, with right-wing populist forces having manifested themselves in events like Trump’s election and the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, Akhavan, a former UN prosecutor at The Hague, felt that the urgency with which he had to convey his message about why human rights matter was dramatically transformed. For this year’s CBC lectures, delivered to audiences in five cities across Canada between September 13 and October 4, Akhavan decided very deliberately to write something that he hoped would be, in his words, profound but also accessible to a wider public. 

The resulting book, In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey (on which the lectures were based), is part-memoir, part-modern history of the world’s most egregious human rights abuses — to which Akhavan, over his life, has had a front row seat.

After fleeing Tehran for Toronto at the age of nine, Akhavan, whose family belonged to the Baha’i religious minority, had what he would call a “typical immigrant” childhood. Later, in high school, like many teenagers, his biggest concern was trying to fit it (while perfecting his “rather appalling” moon walking skills.) But in the early 1980s, following the Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power, Akhavan’s world was shattered, as friends and family in his land of birth were persecuted, rounded up and executed. Akhavan describes the death of one childhood friend, Mona — 16-years-old at the time, like him — as a “moment of incredible, overwhelming pain” that ultimately led him to a career in international justice.

“It destroyed my world of innocence and it really made me ask, what is it all about? Why her and not me?” Akhavan said in a recent interview with OpenCanada. “I decided that I could not turn my back and carry on business as usual after what I had seen.”

Akhavan’s career has taken him to many of the world’s worst conflict zones, including Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Iraq — experiences that he incorporated into his lectures. He believes the election of Trump, the Brexit vote and an increase in right-wing politics point to the failure of “liberal elites” to reach a wide audience, and says he felt a responsibility to go beyond “politically correct platitudes.” 

“It made me realize that we are out of touch with the despair and rage and alienation in our midst, and that we need to have a conversation about empathy and engagement,” Akhavan said.

“It was emotionally draining for me to relive the execution of Mona, when I was 16 years old, to relive the horrors of Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, the sights in the streets of Kigali after the genocide, the Yazidi refugee camps in northern Iraq. All of these were very difficult to write about, and I almost felt guilty that I was going to make people very sad. But I felt a responsibility to say it like it is, to impress upon people the catastrophic toll of indifference, of failing to embrace the fundamental importance of fighting for justice, and what it means to our self-conception.”

Speaking to OpenCanada from Oxford, England, where the McGill University international law professor spends part of his year, Akhavan reflected on his experience delivering the Massey Lectures, the current state of the international law landscape, and the foreign policy goals he’d like to see Canada pursue in 2018.

What message were you hoping to share with Canadians via your book and subsequent lectures?

My gamble in writing these lectures was in putting forward the simple proposition that a lack of empathy is, in a consumerist culture that celebrates greed and self-indulgence, what has brought us to this place. We need to have a radically different conception of human nature and social purpose, in order to have a competing populism of empathy, to bring society to a different direction. And it goes far beyond whether we vote right-of-centre or left-of-centre. Liberals like to celebrate difference, until they realized that difference is different from what they expected it to be. 

So I knew in writing my lecture in that way, and injecting it with my own oriental, mystical culture — which is a very different way of looking at the world — I would invite the scorn of the educated cynic. To me, the fact that the book became a bestseller wasn’t so much a triumph of my ego but more a kind of vindication of my understanding of what moves the public to think and reflect more deeply on the human condition — what it is that provokes people, instead of falling into despair and anger, to actually be motivated, to become engaged, to build a better world.

Tell us a bit about your experience on the lecture circuit.

I went from Whitehorse to Vancouver to Montreal to St. John’s to Toronto — I met thousands of people, and had conversations with Canadians from coast to coast to coast. I talked to an eight-year-old child in Whitehorse who asked me, “What can I do to make the world better,” and I met an 88-year-old grandmother and social activist who put me to shame in terms of her energy and determination. It was incredible — in Whitehorse, the hall was sold out, and the capacity was about 500 people, which is two percent of the population! My lecture was about my experience of exile, as a child coming from Iran to Canada. It was extraordinary to see the empathy with which people listened and the connection that was created. It was almost like a spiritual pilgrimage, the kind of connection that was developed with all of these audiences — almost like a continuum across the country of people who were so open and receptive to understanding what they could do better in healing the wounds of society. 

As a young lawyer, you were involved in drafting the initial indictment against former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić, who was recently convicted of war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. What are your thoughts as, after 24 years, the tribunal wraps up?

I had great ambivalence about the Mladić judgment. On the one hand, I think it was a glorious day for global justice. When I was in my 20s, drafting this indictment for crimes against humanity and genocide, Mladić was in power, he was untouchable, and the idea that he would one day be brought to justice was unthinkable. We were ridiculed by all the so-called political realists who not only accused us of being incredibly naive and chasing windmills, à la Don Quixote, but also of getting in the way of a peace agreement, because [they thought], what incentive would these people have to end the war if they knew that they would be prosecuted at the end?

The Yugoslav tribunal was a spectacular success, despite all of its faults and blemishes and shortcomings. We need to remember what the world looked like in 1993, when the tribunal was established, when throughout the UN era, there was an entrenched culture of impunity. So I feel that this was a great moral triumph, even though I’m humble enough to recognize that this isn’t going to bring back the dead. And the Mothers of Srebrenica who celebrated the judgment at the same time realized that no punishment is enough for what has happened to their children. 

“The ICC has become a weak, fledgling institution at the margin of power realities.”

But on the other hand, it’s a reminder that we have been in retreat since the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which was established because of the political space the Yugoslav tribunal created. The ICC has become a weak, fledgling institution at the margin of power realities, and that’s because there’s no political will to make it successful. Never mind the fact that the United States, Russia, China, India, major powers, are not parties to the court’s statute, but they are not supporting the institute. Even if they are not parties recognizing the court’s jurisdiction, they could still be supporting it: [there’s] the still unexecuted arrest warrant of Omar al-Bashir, the failure of the Security Council to refer crimes in Syria to the ICC, or to create a mechanism for the crimes of ISIS, and now the complete indifference to the crimes against humanity in Myanmar.

My own experience from the Yugoslav tribunal was to understand that respect for human rights, and imposing individual accountability for crimes against humanity, isn’t just about some lofty moral dream, but it’s also about sustainable global governance, because there is a price that you pay for impunity for mass violence.

I think in Syria and Myanmar and all these other places, we will learn over the long term that there is a cost attached to impunity. This pattern of catastrophes begetting progress, which I speak about in my book — we have some unprecedented horror, and it forces us to build institutions or to strengthen existing one. Well, the ICC is going to become an effective institution sooner or later, and if we don’t do it through vision and volition then just around the corner lies yet another unimaginable horror that will force us to abandon this cynical, short-sighted thinking, and to make this an institution with teeth. And the same thing applies to global warming, to global migration, to terrorism, to pandemics — all of these global problems are instances of short-sighted thinking coming back to blow up in our own face. 

In your book, you write about the need for a ‘radically new conception of world order’— a different way of preventing human rights atrocities before they occur. Can you tell us a bit more about what that could look like?

I use the example of Rwanda to give us a sense of how genocide is not a natural disaster that comes out of nowhere. It takes a tremendous amount of preparation and planning and resources. The world didn’t know a place like Rwanda existed until we saw the horrible spectacle of the bodies littering the streets of Kigali. I reflect [in the book] on how the weapon of mass destruction was [radio station] RTLM. The hate broadcast on this radio station, in a country where 70 percent were illiterate and 90 percent lived in rural areas — that’s what it took to mobilize the hundreds of thousands of willing executioners to kill almost a million people in three months, which is a remarkably efficient, industrial-scale genocide. The question is, well, why didn’t someone shut down that radio station? It’s almost a shockingly simple question, but shutting it down would have at the very least significantly impaired the genocide, if not prevented it altogether. I think it’s because no one cared, it’s as simple as that. Rwanda didn’t matter, no one had a dog in that fight, there was no interest in acting.

So the idea of [the Responsibility to Protect] which emerged — it’s too easy as a human rights activist, as an international law scholar, to say R2P is this glorious vision of the future. Then you witness South Sudan and Syria and Myanmar, and so on and so forth, and you realize that what is lacking is political will, and that’s lacking because of…the lack of popular movements within democratic states that demand action by their leaders. Bill Clinton didn’t lose a single vote by not doing anything for the Rwanda genocide — the same thing applies to Myanmar today. 

We need to create movements within different nations that demand of their leaders a more global vision and meaningful engagement in creating institutions of global governance. But by the same token we need visionary leadership among global elites that realizes the status quo is not tenable.

“Bill Clinton didn’t lose a single vote by not doing anything for the Rwanda genocide — the same thing applies to Myanmar today.”

For example, a UN rapid reaction force has been talked about since the very first days of the UN, but there is no political constituency to make it a reality. I’m kind of concerned about how today we don’t have the Václav Havels of the world that are willing to go to the General Assembly and make a speech, as he did at the Millennium Summit, speaking about what is required. Whether it’s politically realistic or not is besides the point — first you have to put it on the global agenda.

No one is really speaking about the type of structural reform that the UN needs to get the job done. We have a special advisor on the prevention of genocide, we have a special advisor on R2P, we have had a number of UN expert reports and resolutions, but that’s not what really changes the culture of an institution. It’s changed when influential actors internalize new ideas and new behaviours. We need to create new habits in how we define the national interest, how we define the sustainable exercise of power. Once we appreciate that interdependence isn’t some naive idea but an inescapable reality, then we can begin to create a different type of calculus, a different type of political space.

What would you like to see Canada doing more of on the world stage?

Well, I would hope that we could have a foreign policy beyond NAFTA. I understand the very serious challenges that Canada is facing on the free trade front, but I think that preoccupation has eclipsed a number of other areas where we should be exercising leadership rather than carrying on business as usual. I think that Canada has an especially important role to play because we have somehow survived this onslaught of populism, although I don’t think we should be too complacent, because the tide can shift in our society as well. Whether it is R2P, the ICC — I think that Canada has been remarkably silent on issues which require much greater focus exactly because of the retreat from multilateralism that we see in the world today.

On the foreign policy front, Canada should be speaking about the wider, structural changes that are required to create an effective regime of global governance. And at the same time, it should lead by example, and take meaningful steps to engage in some of the very pressing issues that we have around the world. Our peacekeeping pledges have not been kept; we could be doing a lot more on that front. On the environment, I think that if you speak to those familiar with the science of global warming, they will say that as important as Paris was, it is hardly sufficient to deal with the catastrophic scale of what awaits us around the corner. On Myanmar, Canada should be writing to the Security Council, requesting a referral to the International Criminal Court. Here we have genocidal violence happening, and not one person is speaking about holding the Myanmar leadership accountable, because it is not a political issue. 

This goes back to leadership — leadership isn’t just about responding to the burning issues of the day out of political necessity, it’s about introducing into the political space issues that are being ignored. Is the Canadian public going to make Myanmar an election issue? Probably not. But I think that a political leader with a conscience [must] go beyond this kind of sentimental humanitarian response that, yes, we’re shipping food to the refugees — as we should — to stand up and say, there is a genocide occurring, and it’s occurring because the Myanmar leadership is perpetrating it. This might be a case actually where we don’t have that much to lose. Myanmar is not a major trading partner, why is Canada silent? If Canada is not going to act, who will?

There are a number of fronts on which we could be shaping the global agenda in meaningful ways, rather than simply carrying on business as usual and indulging in reactive politics, waiting for the next disaster to happen before we come to the conclusion that existing structures and habits are inadequate.

In your book, you are critical of the ‘egotistic emptiness’ afflicting Western society today, including the millennial, ‘selfie’ generation. What is your advice to young people wanting to do more to better the world?

We need to understand that we live in an inextricably interdependent world. We also need to go beyond our culture of instant gratification, in which we’re consuming more and more but falling into ever greater despair. Most of my work is with countries in the global south, I was brought up the first decade of my life in a developing country, and although I wouldn’t romanticize poverty and the sort of issues one confronts in those countries, I think that in the Western world we are going through what I call a psychic pandemic. We have an astonishing degree of stress, anxiety and despair — I think retrieving our own authenticity is not about saving others, it’s about saving our own selves.

Which is why I really wanted to challenge “feel good slacktivism” — not because I want to be critical of the millennials, as this old guy [saying] “when I was your age”…I want to say, how did we get here, how did we get to a place where the Kony 2012 campaign goes viral? Why do we have this Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict which looks more like the Oscars? We give no thought whatsoever to whether we’re actually helping the victims of rape in the Congo, because it’s besides the point — it’s not about them, it’s about us. 

“Millennials need to understand that if they don’t become engaged, the Donald Trumps of the world are going to triumph.”

I would actually think that I have great hope in the millennials. I see, as an educator who deals with young people all the time, and as someone who is a father of two teenage children, that degree of consciousness, whether it’s about gender, the environment, poverty, culture, identity, racism — I think that my children are way ahead of where I was.

I think that we need to admit to the millennials the grave mistakes that [older generations] made in [their] culture, which celebrated greed and narcissism, and which has brought us to this point — this incredible despair and thirst for doing something meaningful. Which goes back to my experience on the lecture tour, and the overwhelming response of the public to my message, which is very simple. I didn’t come up with something brilliant, something unprecedented, some cutting edge theory — on the contrary, I related what I considered to be ancient wisdom to our contemporary reality, and I did it through a set of humble stories.

I think that millennials have to be shaken out of their complacency — they need to understand that if they don’t become engaged, the Donald Trumps of the world are going to triumph, with catastrophic effect on their future. They need to understand that they must question the very notion of power.

And I may stand accused of being the Dr. Phil of the human rights world, or the Deepak Chopra of the war crimes industry, but I think that we need to rediscover a deep, mystical sense about our place in the universe. The culture of instant gratification is that, “Well, I had a summer internship and I didn’t solve the problem of world hunger, therefore I should despair.” The millennials are going to inherit the world, much more so than I am, or my generation is, so they need to understand what they can achieve over their lifetime.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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