Payam Akhavan’s In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey is this year’s CBC Massey Lectures entry. Akhavan is reading its five chapters in five Canadian cities now and the lectures will be broadcast on CBC Radio from November 6 to 10.
It is Akhavan’s personal story as an immigrant to Canada who became a respected United Nations war crimes prosecutor coupled with his impassioned examinations of war crimes and human rights abuses in our times.
Akhavan, now a professor of international law at McGill University in Montreal, was born in Tehran but came to Toronto at the age of ten, his family fleeing persecution in Iran as members of the Bahá’í religious minority. Family friends were murdered or executed and his uncle was tortured and killed, his body dumped on the street in front of the hospital where he was a doctor, in anti-Bahá’í purges.
Akhavan’s career with the UN took him to the front lines of genocides and mass killings in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq and other war zones. He went on to prosecute many war crimes cases against the instigators of these atrocities at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
In the five chapters Akhavan weaves his personal story with the stories of the human tragedies that have taken place in these and other hot spots. He is justifiably proud of his role in bringing murderers to justice, but his anger at having to do so is deeply felt. Punishing evil is cathartic, but stopping it before it happens is the better path is his unarguable message.
He is scathing about the lack of political will to stops genocides from happening and his anger comes through clearly even when he uses a lawyerly tone.
“Familiarity with the anatomy of genocide may well suggest that often the great evils of our time are predictable; and if they are predictable, the case could be made that they are also potentially preventable,” he writes.
“There is nothing random or spontaneous about radical evil; it is a conspiracy of prodigious proportions. Rarely does it just creep up on us without warning. The real question is not whether we can stop genocide; it is whether we have the will to intervene.”
He is not always entirely specific on how that intervention should take place, but he does emphasise the fact that genocides always begin with scapegoating. How might things have been different in Rwanda for example, he asks, if the radio stations that blared Hutu hatred of Tutsis – “exterminate the cockroaches” – been shut down by Western forces?
Quoting the saying “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers. It began with words,” Akhavan adds “Cockroaches and lice, snakes and rats— the dehumanization of others is always a precondition for their destruction.”
I read Akhavan’s book on the weekend when news of the latest human rights catastrophe, the Myanmar government’s persecution of its Rohingya minority, was in the air and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland declared that “it looked a lot like ethnic cleansing.”
This brought home to me Akhavan’s weary observation about Western concern for the Rwanda massacres: “There was no geopolitical imperative, no strategic interest or oil or minerals that could justify intervention. At most, the suffering of others was inconvenient for our collective conscience, but even that would quickly pass.”
“The problem is not that radical evil is inevitable,” Akhavan reminds us. “The problem is that we don’t really care about human suffering until it comes directly to our shores, or at least onto our television or computer screens. The solutions are there, but the political will is missing.”
His book is a passionate and authoritative call for us all to wake up – and to wake our governments up – to injustices before they become atrocities.
In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey by Payam Akhavan, House of Anansi, 385pp.