There's one question that kept coming up as Payam Akhavan travelled the country giving this year's Massey Lectures  — the simple yet daunting "What can I do?"

Akhavan, a human rights lawyer, McGill professor and former UN prosecutor, said he heard it "again and again" as he lectured about human rights abuses, his experiences with them and how Canadians can help.

Among those who asked were an eight-year-old in Whitehorse and a 12-year-old in Toronto. Akhavan's advice to them was to start "where it all begins" and make differences in their "immediate circle." He used the example of bullying and how kids should feel the responsibility to stand up and stop it.

In Whitehorse

Akhavan's lecture tour began with this group of high school students in Whitehorse. (Greg Kelly/CBC)

And that metaphor, he said, extends beyond the playground. He pointed out similarities at the UN, where there are "bully" and "victim" nations.

"It's very humbling to have that conversation with children because you realize how the simple bond that we create has far-reaching consequences," he said.

Akhavan at The Hague

Akhavan at a war crimes trial at The Hague. He used to be a UN prosecutor there. (ICTY-TV via Payam Akhavan)

"There's something powerful in the instinctive desire of the child to make things better."

Akhavan met all types of people while lecturing — from refugees to social activist seniors — who were eager but often uncertain about how to make a change.

"People responded in very powerful ways to storytelling, to speaking about human suffering and our responsibility," he said. 

"There are so many of us out there each in our own way trying to make the world a better place."

'Get up and do something'

It would be easy for Akhavan to be cynical about all of this.

He's seen some of the worst human rights struggles first hand, serving with the UN in Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia, among other places. And in the 1970s, he too fled from his home in Iran to Canada when his country was under Ayatollah Khomeini's rule.

But he remains optimistic — hence the title of his lecture In Search of a Better World, where he discusses all of these experiences.

IDEAS masseys

This young person asked Akhavan what kids could do to improve human rights during the Toronto lecture. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

They pushed him to become a human rights lawyer; he's now a member of the International Court of Arbitration and has served as legal counsel before the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and the Supreme Courts in Canada and the U.S.

And though he's seen atrocities abroad, he said Canada is far from immune, stressing the plight of the country's Indigenous people.

"This is a scandal. We should all be scandalized," he said. "Indigenous people have had to listen to the mainstream culture for far too long."

He said in order to move forward, it is time to listen and respect each other.

"Despair and cynicism is effortless," he told a group in Whitehorse. "It doesn't take anything to say, 'Well I'm so depressed, the world is terrible.' But get up and do something."


All five parts of Akhavan's Massey Lectures will be broadcast on CBC Radio's IDEAS from 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.