By Sauvé Fellow Syed QudratUllah
“The human rights movement needs an honest insight within itself, and we have to start the journey from the self in order to serve humanity. We need to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty to affect change on the ground. This must be done without expectation of reward or media coverage.” With these powerful and credible lines, Mr. Payam Akhavan, Professor of International Law at McGill University and internationally recognized human rights lawyer, began his Leadership Encounter on human rights with the Sauvé Fellows. He stressed an empathic approach to human suffering, stating that with genuine empathy and a capacity to feel the pain of others, we can achieve meaningful change, experience an intimate shared humanity, and sacrifice for a greater cause.
While talking about his personal and professional experiences with us, Professor Akhavan shared that a career in human rights was not a planned career choice: it was a process of self-actualization. The intense influential experiences of Iran’s revolution and 9/11 were part of a journey that taught him to feel the pain of humanity and to react to it. He learned that we cannot remain indifferent to the suffering of others. He became aware of the distance between the self-centered world of elites and the reality of those whom those elites claimed to be helping. There is a troubling disconnect between the corridors of power and people’s lived realities on the ground.
Professor Akhavan also spoke about the most heated issues of today, such as ISIS and restlessness going on in Middle East. He is of the opinion that when we witness the violent breakdown of the Middle East, we should be mindful of the consequences and interdependencies in our world as well. The horrors of the Islamic State of Iraq and its “Caliphate of Barbarism”, the genocide against Christians, Kurds and Yazidis, the destruction of mosques and shrines, these did not come into being overnight. There is a long and cyclical history in the region of support for dictatorships, corruption, war and religious extremism.
In the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Americans and Saudi forces supported the Mujahideen fighters. In those same years, the Americans and Europeans supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. They were silent about the chemical gassing and genocide of the Iraqi Kurds. Similarly, during the “Arab Spring” in 2011, the West condemned Assad but did nothing while he was massacring the Syrian people, reducing cities to rubble, backed by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Arabia continue their contest for regional domination by supporting rival Shia and Sunni extremists, massacring innocent civilians in their ruthless proxy wars. They may find that these same forces could threaten their own regimes. Prof. Akhavan stressed that we should have no illusions that this violence won’t spread to our own shores. The only lasting solution is a new vision for the Middle East, built on courageous leadership that transcends the cynical politics of the past and offers an inclusive and progressive way forward
Professor Akhavan also discussed the modern day practices of human rights activists, the campaigns and contradictions in behaviours towards meaningful change. He pointed out that we admire Hollywood celebrities that glamourize suffering and make human rights “sexy”. In this world of glamor, authenticity and humility often seem worthless. In this global village, some strive at the grassroots level to reduce human suffering, while others arrive just in time for those glamorized events: sipping wine, wearing designer clothes, and shedding the occasional tear at a prestigious awards ceremony. Building a world on empathy means that we must each assume personal responsibility and enter into close communication with those who suffer. In other words, the work of advancing human rights should not be sexy.
Professor Akhavan shared Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “When you were born you were crying and everyone else was smiling. Live your life so at the end, you are the one who is smiling and everyone else is crying.” He then went on to conclude his session by warning that it is not enough to assume that our leaders will solve the world’s problems on our behalf. It is not enough to write a cheque of 1 million dollars to a charity in a conference organized in a five-star hotel. With such practices, we are converted human rights into an industry that has nothing to do with the authentic connections that bind us together across our differences. We must roll up our sleeves and become directly engaged. Without allowing ourselves to be touched in an intense way by others, we cannot make a substantial change, whether in our own lives, or the lives of others.