by Niyosha Keyzad, MA’12
Looking at photos of a younger Payam Akhavan, you notice something straight away. It’s how he is dressed. Not the crisp white shirt and tastefully funky tie you’d expect of a Harvard-trained lawyer in the early days of a promising career. Instead, Akhavan is wearing a bulletproof vest and a hard hat – a requisite uniform for venturing into the dangerous areas he visited in the former Yugoslavia during a notoriously bitter and bloody civil war.
As I sit with him in his office, Akhavan shares some archival news footage with me, conjuring up the horrific conditions of Bosnia that he witnessed as a UN official in the early nineties. He points out a bus that once shielded him from a sniper attack. “Two years out of law school, I was parachuted into Bosnia in the middle of the war as a human rights investigator in the village of Ahmići, where a particularly gruesome massacre had occurred,” he explains. “The local militia wasn’t happy about us sniffing around, trying to uncover their crimes, so they attempted to assassinate my colleague and me, and [they] came uncomfortably close to succeeding.
“Afterwards, I confronted the general whose forces were responsible for the massacre and for trying to kill us,” Akhavan says. “I was so angry that I burst through his doors and shamed him with a detailed account of what I had witnessed, such as the charred remains of a family that had been doused with gasoline and burnt alive in the basement where they were hiding. I sensed at that moment the general actually felt some guilt.” Akhavan pauses. “In retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t the most rational thing [for me] to do, because he could have had me shot. But that’s [not something] you learn in law school negotiation workshops.”
Akhavan went on to play a pioneering role in international legal circles when he became the first legal advisor to the newly created Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at the Hague in 1994. He left the post in 2000 and today calls McGill his home. An associate professor of law, Akhavan specializes in such areas as international criminal law and human rights and his academic pursuits are clearly coloured by his experiences pursuing the perpetrators of real-life war crimes.
A grieving family
His commitment to the cause of human rights extends back to his childhood. His Iranian family immigrated to Canada a few years before the Islamic revolution of 1979 and they watched from a distance as the new regime consolidated its grip on power and wreaked havoc on their homeland. As adherents of the Baha’i faith – the largest and most severely persecuted religious minority group in Iran – their plans to return home were postponed indefinitely by an outbreak of post-revolutionary violence against Iran’s Baha’is. Though a young child at the time, Akhavan vividly remembers the events of June 14, 1981, the day his uncle, still in Iran, was executed for his beliefs. “Perhaps I didn’t understand the full extent of the situation, but I felt the grief of my family. I knew something terrible and unjust had happened and that I was powerless to do anything about it. That experience had a profound effect on me.”
Akhavan is the co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, an independent non-profit organization that keeps careful tabs on human rights in Iran. He is a determined and persistent critic of Iran’s rulers. Speaking recently to the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on International Human Rights in Ottawa, Akhavan declared, “The regime’s worst enemy is itself; its refusal to understand that in today’s world of openness and interdependence, in today’s Iran with its highly talented and politically aware youthful population, it is simply not possible to rule indefinitely through violence and terror.”
As a scholar, Akhavan has become an influential figure for his examination of some of the very worst things that people do to one another. A widely-cited 2001 article that examined how international criminal justice can be used to deter atrocities, was selected by the International Library of Law and Legal Theory as one of “the most significant published journal essays in contemporary legal studies.” He authored the Report on the Work of the Office of the Special Advisor of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide in 2005, which concluded that genocide is predictable and thus preventable through early warning and modest interventions. His most recent book, Reducing Genocide to Law: Definition, Meaning, and the Ultimate Crime, examines the legal understanding of mass murder in a decidedly unorthodox manner.
“Genocide has become a trophy which bestows the crown of ultimate importance and suffering,” Akhavan says. “Subsequent to the universalization of the Holocaust through the simple concept of genocide, this word became a precious commodity in the marketplace of moral economy, where people believe that if their suffering is not situated under the pinnacle of evil they somehow fall into the black hole of ‘second best.’”
Akhavan believes that all the attention spent on defining genocide in legal terms has become perversely counter-productive and a frustrating distraction in the pursuit of international justice. “If you look at war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, they have all the common elements of murder, rape, torture, and it’s only the context within which they’re committed that distinguishes one crime from the other,” he says. Instead of focusing so much on differentiating between atrocious crimes by fixing labels to them, Akhavan argues that the focus should be on seeking appropriate justice for the victims of those crimes, with careful attention paid to the type of suffering they endured.
The book has earned attention in international legal circles. “A necessary book at a time when the debate over the term genocide is becoming increasingly divisive,” says the Journal of International Criminal Justice.
Akhavan vividly recalls his first encounter with former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević in 1994 at the UN peace negotiations in Geneva. “I remember the sense of rage that I felt at this man, who I saw as a mass murderer and the architect of ethnic cleansing, being treated as a dignitary and given all sorts of honours. When I brushed shoulders with him in the corridors of the Palais des Nations, I saw the personification of evil, but that encounter made me feel that he would never be brought to justice because he was simply too powerful. When you haven’t had a precedent to look back at, everything is an aspiration.”
Akhavan teaching a law class at McGill (Photo: Vincenzo D’Alto)
Akhavan went on to play a role in setting up the process that made the pursuit of notorious war crime suspects like Milošević more than simply an aspiration. “Prior to the establishment of the Yugoslav tribunal, no leader had ever been prosecuted before the UN, so I never imagined that the next time I would see Milošević would be at the Hague, where he would be sitting in a defendant’s box with two UN guards flanking him on each side. It was a powerful image; that moment revolutionized the culture of international relations.”
Akhavan is still haunted by the immense suffering he encountered in his work at the International Criminal Tribunal. He was a part of international legal history, but “there was still a sense of exhaustion and inadequacy at the end of it all, because it’s impossible to address the enormity of the crimes by reducing them to the confines of legal proceedings,” he says. “I had witnessed wickedness that knew no limits.”
The power of rage
Lawyers are often told to keep their feelings in check, to remain dispassionate and to focus only on the legal facts surrounding a case. That isn’t the sort of advice that Akhavan’s students can expect to hear from him.
“I have watched each year the reaction of my students when, after a prolonged discussion of carefully worded UN resolutions on Darfur, I have projected a harrowing image of a child dying in a refugee camp. It leads to a dramatically different conversation and understanding of what it is that we are really talking about.”
Outrage and empathy are appropriate in the face of such suffering, says Akhavan. “How else can we be compelled to move from sanctimonious platitudes to serious engagement? How can we really use our intellectual capabilities to put an end to the evils of the world without feeling grief and rage?
“The problem with this world isn’t a [shortage] of brilliant minds, it’s that we are so emotionally removed from the topics of our learning, and so wont to confuse self-indulgent dogmatism with empathy, that we are failing to produce moral leaders that are capable of transforming society. Leadership in the political sphere is about populism and the ability to manipulate public opinion, but what we need is a different approach that is based on service to one’s community and humanity.”
“I’m inspired by his optimism and his commitment to human goodness in spite of having witnessed brutality,” says Éloge Butera, BCL’12, a former student.
As a young survivor of the Rwandan genocide, Butera says that what he was hoping to gain from law school was hope itself. “Eighteen years ago, I was one of less than seven percent of Tutsis who survived the genocide in Rwanda. If you had spoken to me then, I would have told you I had little to no interest in going back to school, or in pursuing a meaningful life because my childhood was literally ripped away from me.
“It was with the support of some wonderful people that I made it into [McGill], where I met mentors and colleagues like Payam who helped me make a difference in the lives of the people I left behind in Rwanda,” says Butera. “Our mission is to be instruments of justice and not just technicians of rules, because as it turns out humans make all these rules and those rules are only going to be as good as the people we are.”
Butera says he couldn’t help but be impressed by what Akhavan has accomplished. “I had the opportunity to speak with him about his experience as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in which he investigated and laid the first charges against the genocide perpetuators in my country.”
“What’s incredible about studying [with Akhavan] is if you’re interested in international human rights law, he’s somebody who has seen it play out in the field,” says former student Tanya De Mello, BCL/LLB'11. “So, in addition to teaching us the criminal code for international human rights law, he gives us the anecdotes of what it was to work on these tribunals that dealt with war criminals.”
More importantly, says De Mello, “he never takes people out of the equation. He might be teaching you an international criminal code provision, but what he’s actually going to tell you about is what he saw and how it affected the lives of people. He taught me to never take the people out of my memos and arguments, because you can’t talk in the abstract when you’re talking about lives.”
“The type of students our faculty attracts is an important dimension of the quality of education they receive,” says Akhavan. “Students like Éloge touch the lives of many students by opening their eyes to another universe that they would otherwise never understand through book learning. I’ve been blessed with some amazing students who bring tremendously rich experiences with them and go on to do great things with the knowledge they take away.”
De Mello recalls helping to organize “Ask Payam Anything,” an informal get-together that offered law students the opportunity to ask the law professor about his experiences. Akhavan was candid about the toll that his work in the field and at the tribunal took on him and about the damage that it caused to his personal relationships. “I remember one student said that she had learned more in those two hours than she had in two years of law school,” says De Mello.
“It’s easy to understand theory and intention,” says De Mello, “but when you understand the realities people face personally and professionally, it changes the way in which you digest the law.”
Looking back at the time he spent travelling through war zones, Akhavan says such experiences “can be overwhelming, particularly at a young age when you’re not fully equipped to deal with the psychological impact of trauma. It’s easy to be emotionally consumed by such experiences, which makes it difficult to live an ordinary, balanced life. But on the other hand, you learn to look beyond a superficial understanding of happiness to find a different kind of meaning in life.”