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In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey

by Payam Akhavan

When Payam Akhavan casually comments, midway through In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey, that he spent his youth “making history,” he’s not pulling a Trump, but stating a fact. The McGill University law professor’s early career includes stints as legal counsel and UN prosecutor at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, where he held accountable the architects and executioners of war crimes. His record over the past three decades includes investigations into the deaths of millions of Tutsis in Rwanda, the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia, and the persecution and sex slavery of Yazidi women in Middle Eastern territories controlled by the Islamic State.

Such an illustrious career, played out against the backdrop of some of humanity’s darkest moments, makes for a revelatory, heartbreaking, and often challenging narrative. The five chapters that make up In Search of a Better World – this year’s entry in CBC’s Massey Lectures – combine personal stories with deep reflections, and for the first three of those chapters, the balance feels just right. The book loses focus in the final two parts, before ending on a head-scratchingly sentimental note.

At the heart of the balancing act in the early chapters is Akhavan’s talent for reconciling his professional expertise with some powerful storytelling. The book begins as a memoir of the author’s arrival in Toronto from Tehran. The nine-year-old Akhavan and his family had escaped the persecution (and periodic massacres) visited upon the Bahá’ís, a religious community that formed in 19th-century Iran. Like most immigrant memoirs from marginalized voices, the author’s personal story is distilled through an aching realization of the duality of his existence – in this case as a “godless infidel” in his homeland and a “camel-driving terrorist” in the new world. What distinguishes this particular reminiscence is Akhavan’s early awareness of the need to stand up for human rights as more than an intellectual project or something to be paid lip service. As he recounts the experiences of friends and families falling victim to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hardline government, the reader gets a clear sense of the fearless prosecutor Akhavan would become. It’s an origin story, not unlike that of a superhero, and the comparison seems apt.

The same strategy of anchoring each subsequent chapter (or lecture) in narratives – gleaned from the author’s own life and those of genocide survivors and perpetrators – pays dividends. Drawing on a tradition that goes back to the Nazi trials in Nuremberg, Akhavan depicts genocide not as an abstract occurrence but a human-made event. So when Akhavan chooses to focus on a Serbian man facing trial for the murder of 1,200 Bosnian Muslims, or when he explores the role of Hutu-run media in dehumanizing minority Tutsis in Rwanda, he forces us to re-examine the complex range of what historians refer to as willing accomplices.

The real surprise of the book – and potentially its most controversial contribution to the debate on global justice – is Akhavan’s complete disenchantment with the very legal processes and political systems to which he dedicated his life. Genocide trials, Akhavan argues, represent victor’s justice and a ritual of closure but never address the work that needs to be done in confronting what he refers to throughout as radical evil. Akhavan longs for a world in which we say “never again,” and we really mean it.

No sane person can possibly disagree with this noble project, but the way Akhavan discredits every system – international justice, diplomacy, academia, human rights advocacy, news media – as spectacles devoid of meaningful acts runs the risk of rendering the lectures close to diatribes. By all means, rail against the system, but at the very least provide a blueprint for an alternative. In refusing to do this, the book is not only disappointing, but maddening.

Instead of offering reasonable solutions to the problems he identifies, after chapters of historically informed analysis and on-the-ground reporting, Akhavan proposes what amounts to New Age speak. What the world needs now is “genuine feelings” and a “grassroots conspiracy of authenticity, implemented by transactions of selfless beauty.” This message may play to the rafters on the lecture circuit, but in print it’s indistinguishable from what you find on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop.

Akhavan pre-empts criticism of his conclusions by referencing a speech that Václav Havel gave at the UN in 2000. The late playwright and former president of the Czech Republic called for an overhaul of the UN that would transform it from a community of diplomats and governments into an institution that every human being on this planet can call their own. Akhavan considers the speech to be “visionary politics,” but he can also conceive of naysayers dismissing it as “the far-fetched fantasy of foolish idealists.”

At a time in which anger at the system and the “establishment” has been co-opted by the far right in the U.S. and parts of Europe as a means to destabilize world order and limit the rule of law, readers deserve something more concrete than pitting visionaries against realists. Akhavan gets us closer to that better world he dreams of, but the search continues.