Payam Akhavan’s Search for a Better World

Payam Akhavan is a professor of Law at McGill University, a Member of the International Court of Arbitration, and a former UN prosecutor at the Hague. He has discovered in his work as legal counsel for the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court as well as the European Court of Justice and the Supreme Courts of Canada and the US that neither the world nor that of courtrooms and lecture halls are as they ought to be. Indeed, the central organizing motif for In Search of a Better World(2017), the Canadian Massey Lectures for 2017, is the gap between intolerable suffering, human acts of radical evil and our often compassion-deficit sensibilities.

Placing himself in the centre of this human rights odyssey, Akhavan’s narrative carries considerable emotional punch. This book is Payam’s intensely told story of the turbulent emotional realm of his own suffering, that of others and the obstacles to ridding our world of those who violate human rights and murder others perceived to be one’s enemy (or simply different). His vision is close-up. It is not from 30,000 feet above the earth or from a comfortable chair behind the symposium table.

An odyssey is a tale of wanderings. Payam’s exilic tale of woe began when he was nine. His family and children left their Iranian homeland in the aftermath of the post-1979 Khomeini Islamic revolution. As Baha’is, the Akhavans escaped with their lives. In fact, as we journey with Payam story after story unfolds, riveting home his adamantine belief that “feeling injustice is the only means of understanding justice” (p. 6). This belief was deepened by the horrific accounts of the deaths of many close Baha’i friends.

That’s the key: his torment as we travel with him through university study, work as a lawyer, the world of criminal courts and confrontation with men who had committed monstrous deeds reinforces the bitter truth that “proliferation of progressive terminology” cannot be confused with “profound empathy and purposeful engagement” (p. 5).

From his parents, Payam learned the “most important Baha’i principle” of the “oneness of humankind” (p. 34). This assertion of faith clashed profoundly with his depiction of Khomeini’s “toxic fusion of theological obscurantism and populist hatred” (ibid.). Like all Baha’i kids round the world, Payam memorized his first quote: “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”

Another thing he learned from the Baha’i prophetic figure, Baha’u’llah, was the “freedom of transcendent self-discovery, without theological control by ecclesiastical intermediaries…” (p. 35). This affirmation inflamed Islamic clerical reaction as did the Baha’i view on gender equality.

The incredible truth seared into Payam’s heart and soul wouldn’t let him flee, even if he did try, from his “all-consuming search for answers” (p. 65) of the Islamic revolution’s horrors. This highly sensitive and intelligent boy made his way from Harrison Public School in Toronto to the Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At Harvard, he discovered that: “The knowledge that mattered most, I realized, could only be found on the ground, in the intimate trenches of human struggle, not by observing the world at thirty thousand feet” (p.67). He was at a crossroads. He could remain a by-stander or commit his life to struggling for justice. He chose the latter.

Throughout his law studies (he graduated from law school in 1990), Akhavan had grappled with the “mighty question of how international law could help those who suffer injustice” (p. 74). However, as he did his Tribunal work, the “old troubles” of the “profound disconnect between the idea of global justice and the grim realities that it conveyed” (p. 75) seeped into his consciousness. Treading carefully, Akhavan recalls some of the murderously unimaginable assaults on civilians by the likes of Bosnia sub-general Ratko Mladic and Serbian president Radovan Karadzic in Srebenica.

Seven thousand men were executed after the fall of Srebenica in July 1995. Payam nails the message on the board for all to see: this was the “first genocide on European soil since the Second World War” (p. 78). This terrible truth stared at him through the skulls of the dead: “The evil was so extreme, so unfathomable, that it defied dimmunition to the antiseptic confines of legal procedure” (ibid.). As Payam plunged into the tangled and treacherous world of identifying, catching and trying war criminals, the “old trouble” wormed its way once again into his consciousness. “I would enter Sarajevo aspiring to save the world; I would leave struggling to save my own soul” (p. 94).

As the Bosnian war unfolded, it “became a gruesome media spectacle” (p. 101). For Payam, the televised “depiction of human suffering seemed like a spectator sport of superficial sentimentality” (ibid.). What made all of this (and much more) so agonizing for this sensitive Baha’i scholar was the absence of UN “political will” to put an end to horrors. It didn’t help Payam’s state of mental health, either, to listen to the often empty and haughty words of diplomats.

At the Yugoslav Peace Conference in Geneva in 1995, Akhavan saw the demagogic Serbia president Slobodan Milosevic walking down the stairs with “charming smile and convincing demeanour” (p. 111). Payam’s “instinctive excitement of encountering a celebrity” (ibid.) soon evaporated before the “dark reality” (ibid.) behind the pomp and ceremony. This powerful, ruthless man was in the grip of dark reality indeed: he wanted all Serbs to live in a “single ethnically pure State” (p. 113).

His malevolent vision of a “Greater Serbia” meant that he and his army had to eliminate ethnic Croats in Krajina and Slavonia regions. The demons had been released from their graves. Payam had toured Vukovar, “described by one anti-war leader as the Hiroshima of nationalist madness” (p.114). Following just behind Milosevic in the Serbian delegation was Radovan Karadzic, a “smug and self-satisfied man with a signature bouffant hairstyle, was a psychiatrist and self-styled poet turned nationalist politician” (p. 115).

This man, Payam informs us, had a twisted mind. His poem on “Sarajevo” contained these words: “The city burns like a piece of incense,” he wrote. “In the smoke rumbles our consciousness” (ibid.). Ratko Mladic was walking alongside Karadzic. This man who had “the self-assured smirk of a ruthless conqueror” (p. 116) had no qualms about murdering defenceless Muslims.

Akhavan left the world of tribunals with some sense of accomplishment. Yet he felt “(e)xhausted by the toll of these years, I was overcome with a sense of futility. The rules of power had to change; humankind desperately needed a moral compass, a division between right and wrong. But to reduce the enormity of the pain to the punishment of this or that villain was to indulge in the illusion that through rituals of judicial procedure we had learned the deeper lessons of confronting the radical evil in our midst” (p. 147).

Through these trials and tribulations, Payam’s sense of justice deepened and clarified. “Justice is, above all, a redemption of our shared humanity. It restores not only the dignity of the victim but also that of the perpetrator, and it is also a reminder to the bystander that our true vocation is to demand justice for all, because we are but one in essence” (ibid.).

The bombing of the twin Buddhas in Bamiyan and the twin towers of NYC, Akhavan observes poignantly, alerted us to the “reality that in an interdependent world, we are all connected; that the welfare of one part affects the welfare of the rest” (p. 214). But the Western political powers were swept up in the dangerous illusion that evil was now elsewhere, “the responsibility of other, faceless people who had no history, no context, no relation to our choices or destiny; people whose pain was less worthy than our own” (p. 215).

The lamentations of Payam weep through the remaining pages of this text. We have lost opportunities to revitalize the UN—he cries out like the ancient prophet Jeremiah. Afghanistan was not a detached limb of humankind–it was “part of the single body that inextricably connect us” (p. 217). He states unequivocally that we cannot wrench the body apart limb by limb–the “welfare of all peoples is inexorably intertwined, a world in desperate need of both attitudes and institutions reflecting the reality of oneness” (ibid.). He also laments that the “misguided triumphalism of a ‘new world order’ was built on the weak pillar of unipolar supremacy and the still narrow conceptions of self-interest” (p. 234).

Akhavan, however, perceives in our turbulent moment of historical unfolding “the rise of an unprecedented consciousness that we all belong to a single emerging world civilization, that our survival depends on acceptance of a transcendent ethos of human dignity for all” (p. 256). Baha’is believe that two processes are at work simultaneously in global history. One perceives the old world order manifestly at odds with the “reality of our oneness” (p. 257).

This old world, says Payam, imagines itself as that “thin slice of humanity we define as ‘self’ is at the centre of the universe, while those defined as ‘others’ must naturally revolve around its orbit” (ibid.). Thus, for “the first time in history, we are forced collectively to reimagine our identities through the inclusion, rather than exclusion, of others, to achieve the consummation of our social evolution as a single species. Those with messianic expectations were right: the world as we knew it for thousands of years has come to an abrupt end” (ibid.).

In his concluding thoughts, Payam Akhavan tells us that he has been struggling for human rights for over a quarter of a century. This human rights odyssey has carried him like a wild wind to many places of “unspeakable suffering” (p. 335). But he has also witnessed the “astonishing, inextinguishable light of the human spirit.” “To become worthy of serving humanity, we must first be broken apart, so the invincible light can enter the depths of our being. Without knowledge of suffering, without kindling a fire in our hearts, we will never set out on that wondrous journey, in search of a better world.”

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.