Friday November 10, 2017

'Hijacking human rights': What stands in the way of a better world

In his final lecture, Payam Akhavan looks through the eyes of a suicide bomber to chart the rise of extremism and the decline of 'basic human dignity.' He concludes the series explaining how we can end hate and see how interconnected we all are.

In his final lecture, Payam Akhavan looks through the eyes of a suicide bomber to chart the rise of extremism and the decline of 'basic human dignity.' He concludes the series explaining how we can end hate and see how interconnected we all are. (CBC)

Listen to Full Episode 1:08:25

CBC Massey Lecture 5: The Spirit of Human Rights


After watching world leaders, bigwig CEOs and pop stars schmooze over drinks at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Payam Akhavan wondered just how these elites were actually "improving the state of the world."

After all, that's the motto he saw emblazoned on a banner at the forum.

Instead, in a star-studded sea of personalities, Akhavan found "a decided lack of humility."

"The idea that was absent at Davos was how the rich and famous could help change the same neo-liberal order that had allowed them to amass obscene fortunes to the exclusion of the 99 per cent," Akhavan said, who is this year's Massey lecturer.

He goes on to argue that the rich and famous are "hijacking human rights for their own purposes."

Switzerland World Economic Forum Davos

Bono, left, looks on as former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore speaks during a working session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday Jan. 24, 2008. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)

"While self-righteous elites point accusatory fingers from thirty thousand feet, the extremists have tapped into public rage and alienation with considerable success."

Akhavan, a human rights lawyer and McGill professor, saw those qualities in Ahmed Qasim al-Khateb, a young suicide bomber whom he met in an Iraqi prison.

"He spoke with unwavering confidence about his sacred mission," said Akhavan, who was in Iraq to examine ISIS atrocities and try to find ways to bring about justice. 

"A train-wreck of shame, humiliation and trauma, Ahmed had nothing to lose. In joining ISIS, he had suddenly found an identity, an illusion of power." But he also revealed to Akhavan that he missed his mother and wanted to go to school.

It's a problem in Canada, too

It's just one of the examples of the collapse of "basic human dignity" that Akhavan gives in his final lecture, recorded last month in Toronto.

And we're not immune.

Akhavan concludes the series by bringing up the plight of Canada's Indigenous people. As an immigrant to Canada, he pictured the country as a "human rights paradise." Discovering our troubled Indigenous history made him rethink that.

Payam Akhavan on Davos, celebrity activism, and whether the elite gatherings are improving the state of the world.1:52

"If we want to move beyond feel-good platitudes, if we want something better than cynical despair, we need a brutally honest conversation about the greed, hypocrisy, corruption and arrogance that has brought us to this difficult place," he said.

"None of us, no matter how accomplished, is on top of the world; we are all a part of it, every single one of us."


Key quotes in Akhavan's fifth and final lecture

  • "It seemed utterly foolish for people to think that somehow the unholy trinity of the mega-rich, political opportunists, and fashionable entertainers would do the right thing; that they would act with selflessness to achieve meaningful change. Compassion kitsch by the one per cent was surely not the way to build a better world."
Payam quote card 9

Akhavan had rather blunt words about certain global elite gatherings, like the World Economic Forum in Davos and The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

  • "Just as we worship the secular sacred, just as we celebrate our inherent dignity, we also indulge in the crass materialism and self-absorption of our consumerist culture. The glorification of greed breeds apathy to the suffering of others; it breeds both cultural and structural violence. It is fundamentally incompatible with the spiritual reality that the depths of our humanity can only be discovered through altruism. The light of our soul is best mirrored in how we help the suffering, not in how much we consume."
Payam quote card 10

(Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

All five parts of Payam Akhavan's Massey Lectures air on IDEAS November 6 to 10 at 9 p.m./9:30 NT on Radio One. And you can listen online:

The lectures are also published in book form by House of Anansi.