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

'None of us, no matter how accomplished, is on top of the world,' Akhavan warns in final lecture

August 29, 2018

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)

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A call to action for our times, Payam Akhavan's 2017 CBC Massey Lectures is a powerful survey of some of the major human rights struggles of our times. Lecture 5, "The Spirit of Human Rights", was recorded in front of an audience in Toronto.  68:25

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."

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.

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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

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)
(Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

​Payam Akhavan's CBC Massey Lectures will be rebroadcast August 2018.

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