Former UN Prosecutor Payam Akhavan to Give 2017 Massey Lecture in St. John’s

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As part of the 2017 CBC Massey Lectures, Payam Akhavan is presenting “In Search of a Better World:  ‘The Oneness of Humankind’” on Friday September 22nd at the DF Cook Recital Hall in Memorial University’s School of Music.

Akhavan is a former UN prosecutor and is currently a professor at McGill University where he teaches public international law, international dispute settlement, international criminal law, human rights and cultural pluralism.

The talk he will give in St. John’s is an excerpt of a five-part lecture titled In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey, which was published by House of Anansi Press this fall. The book combines autobiography and historical analysis to warn readers about the danger of remaining complacent in the face of injustice.

He writes, “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 profound empathy and purposeful engagement. We say the right things, but we fail to act on them because we want to feel virtuous without paying a price.”

The book begins with Akhavan’s experience of leaving Tehran as a child in the seventies and arriving in Toronto, where he faced racism and bullying. In the years following his arrival in Canada, Akhavan learned about the genocide unfolding in Iran. He describes how painful it was to know loved ones were in danger and feel powerless to help them. Later, he learned the UN’s response to the systematic killing in Iran saved many lives.

“I would grow up understanding that speaking truth to power could be a matter of life and death; that bearing witness and shinning the light on injustice, even in the darkest moments, was fundamental to fighting tyranny against overwhelming odds,” Akhavan wrote.

Using the trajectory of his life to structure the lecture, Akhavan goes on to explain the political circumstances that allowed for several major human rights abuses to take place, including the genocides in Iran, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia.

In St. John’s, Akhavan will be presenting a section of the lecture titled “The Oneness of Humankind.” He begins this chapter by describing being in New York City on the day the twin towers collapsed. He had recently given up the harrowing work of prosecuting war criminals for the UN to become a corporate lawyer. He believed he had left the terrorism he associated with visiting war-torn countries behind, only to find himself afraid he had lost his own family to terrorism in New York City.

He goes on to explain the political and historical circumstances that led to the violence in New York. He says the West’s apathy about the suffering in Afghanistan in the years leading up to the attack was a “conspicuous failure of humanity” and “criminal negligence.”

He argues that 9/11 is evidence of the interconnectedness of everyone on the planet, that ignoring human rights violations in one part of the world will eventually cause inescapable repercussions across the globe.

“Far from the clash of civilizations, the story of 9/11 was that humankind is a single, inseparable, indivisible body; ours is a world in which the welfare of all people is inextricably intertwined, a world in desperate need of both attitudes and institutions reflecting the reality of our oneness,” Akhavan writes.

Akhavan believes that we are living through a unique moment in history; globalization and new technologies mean that people all over the world are more interconnected than ever before. However, he argues that in the West, consumerist culture combined with endless distractions provided by new technologies has made us apathetic to the suffering of others.

His lecture is a call to action that begs us to not only recognize our interconnectedness, but also act accordingly.

“…we are approaching a cross-roads and we can either walk towards a future of unimaginable possibilities where we use technological advancements and education to create a just society … or we can descend into the dark abyss of destruction and collective narcissism,” Akhavan said.

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Eva Crocker

Eva Crocker is a writer from St. John's, her short story collection, Barrelling Forward, was published by House of Anansi Press in Spring of 2017.

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