Tuesday November 07, 2017

How the death of an Iranian girl pushed former UN prosecutor Payam Akhavan to fight for human rights

Former U.N. prosecutor Payam Akhavan's new book, In Search of a Better World, is the premise for this year's Massey Lecturers. Part memoir, history and call to action, the book looks at the major human rights struggles of our times.

Former U.N. prosecutor Payam Akhavan's new book, In Search of a Better World, is the premise for this year's Massey Lecturers. Part memoir, history and call to action, the book looks at the major human rights struggles of our times. (House of Anansi)

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When renowned human rights scholar and former United Nations prosecutor, Payam Akhavan, fled to Canada with his family from Iran at the age of nine, he never imagined that he would one day willingly go back to places of danger in order to help seek justice for others. 

Akhavan, this year's CBC Massey lecturer, has a new book based on the lectures he delivered across Canada called In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey. 

'What is my freedom in Canada worth if it is wasted on mediocrity?' - Payam Akhavan

He tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that it was the story of a girl named Mona Mahmudnizhad, featured prominently in the book, that spurred him on the path to humanitarian law.

Mahmudnizhad was the same age as Akhavan and from the same persecuted Baha'i community in Iran. Mahmudnizhad was arrested and hung by the Iranian government at the age of 16 for her faith. 

'This just shattered my world': Payam Akhavan remembers Mona, who at the age of 16 was killed by the Iranian government2:10

"I realized that someone my age in the same community has had to pay the supreme price for her beliefs and this followed the execution of many other loved ones within the Baha'i community, and it just shattered my complacency and made me ask, 'What is my freedom in Canada worth if it is wasted on mediocrity?'" Akhavan says.

'I should at least use my privilege of being alive to fight for justice and human rights.' - Payam Akhavan

The powerful story of Mahmudnizhad pushed Akhavan towards seeking justice for others to this day.

"I decided then that if Mona was willing to pay for her beliefs with her life, I should at least use my privilege of being alive to fight for justice and human rights. I think it fundamentally altered the course of my life," Akhavan tells Tremonti. 

At the age of 26, Akhavan was the youngest prosecutor of war crimes in the history of the UN, and although a lawyer, he began to see the limits of the law when trying to bring perpetrators to justice.

Instead, he began to advocate for a focus on the everyday individual and what they could do to change the world.

Akhavan at The Hague

Payam Akhavan was 26 when he was hired to prosecute war crimes for the U.N. - its youngest prosecutor. All these years later, he still believes in fighting human rights abuses in court. (ICTY-TV via Payam Akhavan)

"We need to look at ourselves. We need to understand that there is a power to our everyday decisions, the conversations we have across kitchen tables, the relationships we have with our colleagues at work — these are the building blocks of a just society," he explains.

Meeting Buffy Sainte-Marie

Akhavan says his introduction to Canada's Indigenous people when he was a teenager was on the set of the Canadian music video about the life of Mahmudnizhad. It was there that Akhavan met iconic Indigenous musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, who also starred in the video.

'If we persist in a materialistic culture which celebrates greed and narcissism and only pays lip service to human rights ... it's not going to end well.' - Payam Akhavan

"As a 17-year-old with a bunch of Iranian Baha'i refugees, I was astonished that an Indigenous woman took an interest in the death of Mona and I began to understand the transcendence of suffering," Akhavan says.

Meeting of Sainte-Marie moved Akhavan to go and spend a month in the Canadian Arctic when he was 18.

Although Akhavan is now a retired UN human rights prosecutor, he warns that we must move beyond the law and look to each other in order to save our world. 

"We live in a world where the welfare of one part is inextricably tied to the welfare of the rest, so when we ignore justice when we ignore human rights it ultimately comes back to haunt us," he says.

"If we persist in a materialistic culture which celebrates greed and narcissism and only pays lip service to human rights, guess what — it's not going to end well.

Payam Akhavan's Massey lectures will be broadcast nightly this week on CBC Radio One from November 6 - 10 on Ideas with Paul Kennedy. 

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin.