Ideas·CBC Massey Lectures

'Struggling for justice': How Payam Akhavan lost his home in Iran and found human rights

In the first of his CBC Massey Lectures, human rights lawyer and scholar Payam Akhavan describes how fleeing Iran and watching his homeland from afar helped him discover human rights.
The first of Akhavan's lectures focuses largely on how he fled to Canada and was inspired by the rebellion of Mona Mahmudnizhad, left, a young woman around his age from the Iranian Bahai community in Tehran. (CBC)

CBC Massey Lecture 1: The Knowledge of Suffering

"I had a stark choice: to exercise my freedom to become a bystander, or to commit my life to struggling for justice."

That's the difficult decision Payam Akhavan — the 2017 CBC Massey Lecturer — had to make after fleeing the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s for Canada, where he had his awakening to human rights.

That awakening came when he was a teenager, and heard what had happened to Mona Mahmudnizhad, a young woman around his age from the Iranian Bahai community in Tehran.

Mona had been assigned in school to write an essay about religious freedom. She was expected to praise the government, but instead used the essay to speak out about her lack of freedom.

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

5 years ago
Duration 2:11
'This just shattered my world': Payam Akhavan remembers Mona, who at the age of 16 was killed by the Iranian government

"After she wrote that essay, the authorities raided her home," Akhavan explains in the first of his lectures. "They arrested her and her father. Her mother begged them not to take her daughter, saying she is just a child. And they produced the essay and they said the person who wrote this essay is not a child."

Mona and her father were put in prison, where they were tortured for several months. In June 1983, she was killed alongside nine other Iranian Bahai women. Mona was hanged on a polo field, the same place where her father had been executed.

Akhavan and his family fled their home country Iran in the 1970s, when it was ruled by Ayatollah Khomeini, pictured here. In his lecture, Akhavan said Khomeini had an 'obsessive hatred' for his community, Bahá’ís. (The Associated Press)

Yet even in those final moments, she showed courage and rebellion.

"We know that when Mona was on the gallows that she, with the noose around her neck, smiled at her executioner in a final act of defiance," Akhavan said. "This just shattered my world. It completely changed the course of my life."

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

Akhavan went on to become a famed human rights lawyer and scholar; he is a former UN prosecutor and has served as legal counsel before the International Court of Justice and the Supreme Courts in Canada and the U.S. 

His work with the UN put him in front of some of the worst human rights struggles, on the ground in Rwanda, Bosnia and East Timor.

He touches on many of these human rights abuses, and what can be done to help out, as part of his lectures, optimistically named In Search of a Better World. This first lecture was delivered in Whitehorse.

"There can be no global outcry if we don't raise our voices," he told the crowd there.

Key moments from Akhavan's first lecture

  • "I was told that Canada is the promised land, but I pined for Iran. From the vantage point of schoolyard politics, I was a despised minority in Canada. I was not yet aware that I was a much more despised minority in Iran. There was seemingly no escape from this prison of identity. Confined by its oppressive walls, the best I could do was to retreat inside of myself and find comfort in romanticized memories, a stubborn clinging to an increasingly perfect past."
Human rights scholar and lawyer Payam Akhavan speaks at the final stop of the Massey Lectures tour at Toronto's Koerner Hall. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)
  • "The problem with the world is not a shortage of brilliant theories or feel-good slogans. The problem is that we confuse proliferation of progressive terminology with empathy and engagement. We say the right things, but we fail to act on them because we want to feel virtuous without paying a price. There can be no meaningful change if we choose to look down at the arena of anguish from thirty thousand feet."

Akhavan's essay spans five parts, starting with his experience fleeing Iran and ending with the human rights abuses that are happening here in Canada. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

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

The lectures are published in book form by House of Anansi


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