Meeting pioneering war-crimes prosecutor Payam Akhavan

Meeting pioneering war-crimes prosecutor Payam Akhavan
Q&A: The international legal expert talks to Hadani Ditmars about how paying hypocritical lip-service to human rights leads to a rise in extremism, both foreign and domestic.
12 min read
19 October, 2017
Payam Akhavan represented Georgia in a case against Russia at The Hague [AFP]
Iranian-Canadian law professor Payam Akhavan was the youngest war-crimes prosecutor in United Nations history, and one of the pioneering litigators at The Hague's International Criminal Court.

In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey was his contribution to the esteemed Canadian Massey Lecture series, an annual five-part series of lectures on a political, cultural or philosophical topic given by a noted scholar.

Past Massey lecturers include Noam Chomsky, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood. 

Akhavan served as the first Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor's Office of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague (1994–2000) and has also served with the UN in Bosnia, Croatia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Timor Leste.

Professor Akhavan is the co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre and divides his time between Oxford where his is a Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College and Montreal, where he teaches at McGill University.

Hadani Ditmars
: How did it feel to be asked to do the Massey lecture? 

Payam Akhavan: I didn't expect it. As the only Canadian of Middle Eastern origin and the only forcibly displaced person to give the lecture, one who doesn't necessarily have the "happy immigrant story" of previous speakers - I was pleasantly surprised. Coming to Canada as a child - being exiled, having to deal with racism - shaped me in profound ways.

Being and becoming Canadian is a work in progress. You learn to constantly adapt to speak in the language of others - the whole idea that one's experience is relevant was a great kind of validation. It was both an honour and a great responsibility. 

HD: The book is part memoir and part manifesto - and takes the reader on a whirlwind epic human rights journey - from Iran to Bosnia to Rwanda to Iraq - to the Inuit in the Canadian north. Was it difficult for you to relive some of the more traumatic memories? Or was the writing cathartic?

PA: It was difficult and cathartic and exhausting but also liberating. Many times I wept as I wrote, recalling not only my childhood in Iran but also the mothers of Srebrenica, my friends in Rwanda, the Yazidi sisters I met last year in Iraq. 

My book is really about how we (in the West) like to feel virtuous by paying lip service to human suffering. That is the delusional hypocrisy that has brought us to this place of smooth talking politicians spouting platitudes while abandoning people to their suffering that is so exploited by populist extremists who use their sense of grievance in the worst possible ways. 

We like to say the right things but the reality doesn't penetrate our being. We don't want to pay the price. Sacrifice can mean many things, from the elderly immigrant couple [in the book] that show up with muffins at Chief Donovan Fontaine's door [the day after the Canadian government's official apology to First Nations people for residential school abuse] to Western governments who could have intervened in Rwanda and saved millions. 

HD: You talk in the book about your experience of racism as an immigrant ESL boy from Iran - being called 'Paki' in the 1970s by white boys. I, as a fifth generation Canadian, had the same experience.

You also mention the 'prison of identity' and write of the 'xenophobic hissy fit of identity warriors'.

And yet identity is also really important to you - in terms of your history as a Baha'i and Iranian, your amazing ancestral stories - like your great grandmother narrowly surviving being thrown off her balcony during an anti Baha'i pogrom. How do you reconcile the thorny issue of identity?

And in this country, what does it take to finally be accepted as a 'Canadian'?

PA: The prison of identity is when your identity becomes weaponised against you. Identities are always complex, multifaceted and fluid. It's wrong to try to essentialise it. Exile is a longing to belong to an emotional space we confuse with a physical space and the constant mediation of "belonging" is complex. 

HDIn your book you write that '[T]he reality today... is that the irresistible forces of globalization, the inexorable expansion of our collective consciousness, is infusing diverse peoples with an ever broader sense of belonging. That is exactly why the extremists are panicking.'

And you dismiss Samuel Huntington's 'clash of civilisations' narrative as 'appealing to thinkers whose simplistic binary vision could not fathom the alternative vision of an inextricably interdependent world'.

But everywhere, it seems - even in Canada - racism and extremism are on the rise. What evidence do you see of a reversal of that trend?

PA: Extremism is a reaction to intensifying interdependence, whether it's white supremacists or Islamic jihadists - they are reacting to what they perceive as a threat to their identity. Like Sartre said about scapegoating: "If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him." 

We have to adjust our attitudes and institutions to reflect the inescapable reality of interdependence - the fact that our welfare is inexorably linked to the welfare of others

To be a xenophobe, it's necessary to demonise the other. Psychologically, it takes less effort to build an identity on hatred than on compassion and empathy.

Why are white supremacists making a comeback? because of an increase in migration, because of different beliefs and identities challenging the way things have always been. It's not so much a reversal of history as a futile attempt to resist irresistible forces of globalism - both economic and cultural. We can't escape reality and go back to building walls.

We have to adjust our attitudes and institutions to reflect the inescapable reality of interdependence - the fact that our welfare is inexorably linked to the welfare of others. 

HD: The chapter where you recount your how your family nearly entered the WTC in New York on 9/11 - sort of becomes your own private blowback. Was that really the moment that the inter-connectedness of world events came home in a visceral way?

Payam Akhavan was speaking to Hadani Ditmars
for The New Arab [TNA]

PA: It was in a way. It brought it home to me in a very powerful manner. I always believed in global interdependence - as a Baha'i - and that's why I became a human rights lawyer.

9/11 made me realise it's not just poetic aspiration - it is an inescapable reality with real consequences. 

I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that such a thing could happen in New York - a place halfway across world from Afghanistan - something that would fundamentally change the course of history. 

That's why I write about the cynical short sightedness of Machiavellian games as being the height of myopic foolishness - one we pay a high price for.

HD: Do you ever suffer from survivor guilt? You talk about the UN and foreign soldiers rescuing white people and leaving the blacks to die in Rwanda - and similar tales of abandonment of the Afghans by the West.

PA: Not really. It's more of a sense of the responsibility that comes with being alive. It goes back to my shock at the execution of Mona Mahmudnizhad [the 17-year-old Baha'i girl killed in 1983 by the Islamic Republic of Iran, for being a Bahai "heretic"]. When she died I realised the only difference was that she was in Iran and I was in Canada.

So I asked myself "why her and not me?" It fundamentally changes questions that you ask - what does it mean to be alive in a world of extremes? What does freedom mean if it's wasted on selfish mediocrity? Guilt is self-indulgent in many ways - absorbed in our own feelings about others' suffering. My attitude is to do something - to act on injustice.

HD: In the book you express misgivings about Indiana Jones-style human rights adventuring and celebrity crusades, Davos summit power-networking and the arrogance of the aid industry. 

You also talk about the double standards and inconsistencies in applying international law and humanitarian intervention. In Rwanda, as you write: 'There was no geopolitical imperative, no strategic interest or oil or minerals that could justify intervention.'

You also recount the work you did with Yazidi women in Iraq in 2016 on a mission 'to explore options for holding ISIS accountable for its heinous crimes. Some had proposed trials before the International Criminal Court at The Hague, but there was a curious lack of political will at the UN Security Council. I surmised that other Iraqi factions with similarly murderous militias feared that they too could be ensnared by criminal investigations; they preferred to sweep the atrocities under the carpet of power politics.' 

Now that we know more about the atrocities - not just of the Islamic State group but also of the Iraqi army - with the work of photographer Ali Arkady - what are the chances of a war crimes tribunal in Iraq?

PA: Slim to none. The Iraqi government would not accept any international mechanism that it cannot control. And because notorious Shia militias like the PMF have committed massive crimes as well as IS. The Security Council has adopted a resolution recently which will provide UN support for trials before Iraqi national courts, but we can be sure those trials will only be against IS - and that Iraq will not bring its murderous Shia militias to trial.

This of course only entrenches the sectarian divisions. 

Also the region is in a tense situation. The vast majority of IS crimes were committed in the Kurdistan region - all the evidence is there, like the mass graves etc. But the Iraqi government is not willing to let the UN have a relationship with Kurdistan in light of the recent independence referendum and the ongoing tensions. 

I'm a bit sceptical about the resolution - proposed by the British - as the Kurdistan region has to be involved in any efforts to hold IS to account for its crimes.

And Iraq does not want to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. There are signs that Kurdistan is willing to accept - but because it's not an independent state it cannot accept jurisdiction without Iraq's consent.  

One of the things that I've been lobbying for are local truth and reconciliation commissions - they are feasible and cost-effective. They would go beyond punishing war criminals and offer an opportunity for reconciliation among local communities affected. A criminal trial is about the defendant but a commission is about the victims.

Thousands of victims could tell their stories in places like Dohuk. 

HD: There is no mention of Palestine in your book but in light of the UN report on Gaza from 2015 - and other violations of international law - what are the chances of Israel ever being taken to the International Criminal Court? 

: It's an interesting case because Palestine has ratified the statute of the International Criminal Court - so the court has jurisdiction there - but Israel is not a party, so that creates some degree of difficulty.  

The demonisation of Israel has its drawbacks... throughout the region Israeli atrocities are used to deflect attention from other atrocities

But having said that ironically or not, Israel is actually in its own way responsive to legal initiatives - and has a very sophisticated legal system. Groups like B'tselem have had considerable success, despite obstacles. There is a certain democratic space in Israel that can be exploited to address these issues.

But that said, in the Middle East, the demonisation of Israel has its drawbacks as well, as throughout the region Israeli atrocities are used to deflect attention from other atrocities.

We need to look at human rights issues within a larger regional context. 

HD: You write in your book the UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, Stephen O'Brien, called Aleppo 'our generation's shame'. Has Syria been one of the UN's biggest failures? 

PA: It's been a big failure, but perhaps not as big as Darfur, South Sudan or Myanmar. The Syrian conflict is more noticeable because of its historical and cultural proximity. Syrian refugees have affected Europe in major ways.

The Syrian conflict was a colossal failure for the international community and will haunt the Middle East for some time to come. Like Afghanistan in the Cold War, it became a proxy war for geo-political rivals.

HD: Now that The United Nations has added a Saudi-led military coalition to a blacklist of child rights violators for causing the deaths and injuries of hundreds of children in war-torn Yemen, what are the chances of war crimes charges ever being laid against Saudi leaders?

PA: The chances are remote. For one thing Saudi doesn't recognise international criminal courts and its own courts will hardly prosecute their own military. What's remarkable was that there was even a watered-down attempt to look at atrocities in Yemen. It's weak, but the fact that it's even on the political map is a sign of changing times. 

For far too long Saudi petroldollars have bought silence in the West. It not hard to understand where Salafist indoctrination comes from - with a network of mosques from Indonesia to Canada in a war against moderate Islam. 

As I wrote in the book, during a recent discussion in the Canadian parliament condemning the Salafist ideology of IS, someone raised the issue of Saudi arms sales - and there was a long silence. 

It's a welcome move for the international community to signal to Saudi Arabia that it too will be called to account. But... there's a whole internal armed conflict in the Shia-dominated eastern province where entire towns are being destroyed and depopulated.

It all goes back to the weaponisation of religion by Saudi Arabia and Iran - that has ripped the Middle East apart.

HD: In the book you talk about the politicisation of genocide, and even the fetishisation of the Holocaust. You write: "Holocaust remembrance was a fetishistic incantation for distant events, its historical lessons divorced from present realities."

You also write: "The prevention of genocide isn't about waking up at the eleventh hour when the armed robbers have already broken into our home. There is no UN 911 emergency number to call. The reality is that, unless powerful nations have the will to intervene in pursuit of their own narrow interests, humanitarian intervention is unlikely to happen." 

So what's the solution? A UN rapid-reaction force ?

PA: I think that the UN needs a complete overhaul. Rwanda is a powerful instance where a rapid reaction force could have saved a million lives.

But there have been successes as well. The measure of success lies in what does not happen. What did not happen in Burundi, in Macedonia. No one will win a Nobel Prize for something that did not happen.

We need to reimagine how we achieve success.

Something as simple as shutting down a radio station [in Rwanda] or starting a competing one, or suspending World Bank structural adjustments when coffee prices were reeling could have stopped genocide.

Things could have been worse - in Duhok [where Yazidis were massacred] and elsewhere. After executing thousands in Srebrenica, Ratko Mladic had Bihac next on his list, but thanks to a joint Croatian-Bosnian military offensive with ‎NATO support that defeated the Bosnian Serb army and prevented them from taking Bihac, he never made it there.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars