By: Payam Akhavan

“Thanks, from the bottom of our hearts.” That’s what Mohamed, a Rohingya refugee, told a CBC journalist this September when Canada’s House of Commons recognized Myanmar’s horrific “ethnic cleansing” against his people as “genocide”. Some weeks earlier, I had been in Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp, situated in neighbouring Bangladesh, where some 700,000 Rohingya had fled.

I heard unspeakable stories of cruelty and suffering, from men, women, and children. Having lost everything they ever had, their dignity was the only thing they could still hold on to. It was humbling to see their anguish, infuriating to see the world’s indifference, and yet, deeply moving to witness how much it mattered to these survivors that somewhere, someone cared about them. It was a powerful reminder that where there is apathy, there is always an excuse to do nothing, but where there is empathy, there is always a way to help people in need.

When we despair at injustice in the world, we forget that if evil triumphs, it is because good people do nothing. Our voices, our choices, can and do make a difference.

Whether it is survivors of genocide halfway around the world, or the injustices in our own backyard, we should never underestimate the power of our engagement. In fact, whether at home or abroad, the struggle for human rights is at the core of what it means to be Canadian. We are indigenous and immigrants, Anglophone and Francophone; we are a multicultural people defined not by ties of blood and soil, but by the idea that protection and promotion of human dignity is the fundamental purpose of our community, the fundamental measure of progress.

The Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ) embodies a grassroots aspiration to mobilize society for the making of this better world. Despite scarce resources, its network of volunteers and donors have made a significant difference in the lives of many, here in Canada and across the world, where those who suffer often have nobody to turn to.

In speaking truth to power, the CCIJ is part of a David and Goliath contest between civil society and those that abuse power with impunity. It is a reflection of the best that Canada has to offer, as a people with empathy and conscience.

We live in a time when we cannot be complacent about human rights. The spread of divisive politics, populist hatred, corporate greed, and climate change can only be confronted by building a culture of human dignity. Standing up for what is right, assuming responsibility, and recognizing our global interdependence is more important than ever, and each and every one of us has a role to play in transforming the world from the bottom up, which after all, is the only lasting solution to the problems that we face. So for all of you who support the important work of the CCIJ in fighting for justice and human rights, thanks from the bottom of my heart!

In Conversation…

Members of the CCIJ team recently had a chance to speak with Payam Akhavan about our shared vision for a more just world. Here is part of that discussion:

Q: What keeps you up at night, Payam?

What keeps me up at night is both the images of victims and the indifference of bystanders.  Whether it was in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, or my native Iran, you realize that all people suffer the same; and when you hear the heartbreaking stories of how people’s lives have been destroyed, you have to ask yourself, “why them and not me”?  We live in a world of extremes, where some suffer so terribly, while others are immersed in consumerist greed, and when you reflect more deeply on this reality, you realize that the question of who suffers and who doesn’t is really quite random. It really frustrates me when I see people who simply don’t care, but it equally inspires me when I see how many people do care and do what they can to help others.

I have also increasingly realized that by showing compassion to those who suffer we are nobody’s saviour except our own.  Our consumerist culture is rather empty, and we suffer from emptiness, so in living a life full of purpose and meaning, we are not only defending the dignity of others, but also our own.  We should ask ourselves every morning what we want to look back at when we draw our last breath, because we will quickly come to the conclusion that what stays long after we are gone is what we did for others. Selfishness is a wasted life, but selflessness is a wondrous life!

Q: Seventy years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, how would you describe the state of international criminal justice?

We have made remarkable progress in the past seventy years, even as the challenges before us remain overwhelming. We must remember that the very idea of human rights, and its universalization, has only been with us very recently. The American and French revolutions, which we look to as precedents, actually excluded much of humankind from their notion of inalienable rights. Africans, women, indigenous people, none were deemed sufficiently “human” to have rights. Much of history is about the victors’ extermination and enslavement of the vanquished; the idea that might makes right.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN in 1948, in the shadow of the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust, we have begun to build a world in which injustice is no longer casually accepted as the fate of the weak. This is a profound revolution in our self-understanding as humankind and we should be under no illusions as to the sacrifice and struggle required to transform this ideal into reality.

There have been significant advances in many areas, including women’s rights, the rights of indigenous people, understanding the relationship between human rights and the environment, human rights and non-violent peaceful societies. Human rights have become the measure of legitimacy even for the powerful, who might hypocritically appropriate these ideals for their own ends.

One area of significant, revolutionary development is the establishment of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) with the adoption of the Rome Statute in 1998. It was in fact the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, established by the UN Security Council in 1993 that set the stage for a permanent court at The Hague.

The ICC is celebrating its 20thanniversary this year. Although 123 States are parties, it remains a weak and fledgling institution because of lack of political will and serious resource constraints. So we have in place today an institution, which is a great victory, but making it effective, giving it “teeth”, will be a long and difficult struggle. But like the idea of human rights, the idea that we must eradicate a culture of impunity for crimes against humanity and genocide is a revolutionary concept, against the backdrop of history, where the powerful slaughtered the weak and innocent at will, without any consequence. So there is room for optimism!

Q: How should the international justice community be measuring success?

We should measure success by what doesn’t happen! By what doesn’t become headline news; what doesn’t become an urgent matter on the agenda of the UN Security Council. Massive human rights violations such as genocide are merely the symptoms of a deeper disease; they are symptoms of populist hatred, the dehumanization of others, divisive politics as an instrument for power at the hands of ruthless ambitious leaders.

When we build cultures of human rights, when we make human dignity the centre of our social universe, when we confront greed and corruption among those in power, when we assume responsibility for building a better world, then we inoculate ourselves against the disease of selfishness, hatred, and violence that is invariably the breeding grounds for the worst atrocities.

Recent developments in the Western world should be a wakeup call that we cannot be complacent. There are dark forces in our own midst, and our indifference and inaction in striving for a just world will be a recipe for disaster. We have to bear in mind that global interdependence is no longer a distant dream; it is an inescapable fact. Either we embrace it through vision and volition, and change our obsolete ways of thinking and behaving, or we will be forced to do so after unimaginable catastrophes!

Payam Akhavan is a Professor of International Law at McGill University, a Member of the International Court of Arbitration, and a former UN prosecutor at The Hague. He has served with the UN in conflict zones around the world, including Bosnia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Timor Leste, and as legal counsel in landmark cases before the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, the Supreme Courts of Canada and the United States.

Payam Akhavan at Kabartu Yazidi refugee camp outside of Duhok, Iraq – July, 2016. (Photo: Peter Bregg)

Payam served as Chair of the Global Conference on Prevention of Genocide (2007), is a Founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, and his groundbreaking human rights work has been featured on BBC World’s Hardtalk, CBC Ideas, Maclean’s magazine, Brazil’s TV Globo, and the New York Times.

In 2017, Payam delivered the CBC Massey Lectures, In Search of a Better World: a Human Rights Odyssey, which ran in five different Canadian cities. His companion book by the same title was a number one bestseller (non-fiction) in Canada last year. Audio recordings of his captivating lectures are available here.

He was born in Tehran, Iran, and migrated to Canada with his family as a child.

Featured image: Payam Akhavan at Kabartu Yazidi refugee camp outside of Duhok, Iraq- July 26, 2016. (Photo: Peter Bregg)