Payam Akhavan 

Professor Payam Akhavan

Law, medicine, or social disgrace: as the child of Iranian parents, those were my career choices.  But my decision to become a lawyer was motivated by righteous rage, not bourgeois respectability.  At the tender age of nine, I didn't understand why we had to leave our enchanting life in Tehran for the frigid temperatures of Toronto.  I had heard that people in Canada lived in igloos, but that they had colour television.  The idea of religious persecution, the idea of exile, was still beyond my vocabulary.  Soon I would understand the poignant meaning of those words; my world of innocence would be forever destroyed, and I would find an unlikely refuge in lawyering.  

Mona and I were both sixteen years old.  We were both members of the Bahá'í community, branded as "heretics" by Iran's fanatical theocracy. But there was a consequential difference between us: my family had left for Canada, while she remained behind in Iran.  One of us would live, while the other would die.  

When I received the news that she had been arrested, I didn't quite appreciate the gravity of the situation.  Her "crime" was writing a high school essay demanding her human rights.  Why would someone be imprisoned for that I thought? What is the worst that can happen to her?  I was a typical teenager, worried about popularity rather than persecution. Being an adolescent immigrant, I was over-compensating in my quest for assimilation.  My questionable choice of disco music was exacerbated by heinous fashion crimes.  My childhood home was now just a distant memory, but soon my past would haunt me in ways I hadn't imagined.  

The day I learned that Mona had been executed would change my life forever.  On June 18th, 1983, in the early hours of the morning, she and nine other Bahá'í women had been hanged.  Her mother had gone to retrieve her body from the prison morgue.  One of the prison guards wept, begging her for forgiveness.  I was overwhelmed, unable to fathom what had happened. "Why her, and not me?" I remember thinking.  All that separated us was random fate.  My sorrow, my rage, sliced through my complacency like a knife.  I would never be the same person again. 

For me, becoming a human rights lawyer was not a career choice; it was my only path of redemption.  Mona's loss made me realize that the freedom and prosperity we enjoyed in Canada was meaningless if it was wasted on apathy and mediocrity.  I was shattered, unable to reconcile a world of extremes, youth dying for their ideals in one country, and indulging in empty consumerism in another.  The sense of irredeemable loss was a window into another world, with a different conception of life, career, and purpose; the beginning of a long and difficult journey.  Exile, I would come to learn, was an emotional space that we confused with a physical place, a longing to belong, to retrieve a lost humanity so we could become whole again.  

In pursuit of justice I would go from the schoolyard where I was bullied for my broken English to the hallowed lecture halls of Harvard Law School.  By the time I was in my 20s, I found myself at the forefront of the historic Yugoslav war crimes trials at The Hague where I served as a UN prosecutor.  Fresh out of law school, I would help draft indictments against the Butchers of Bosnia who introduced the term "ethnic cleansing" to our contemporary lexicon.  I would brave bullets and bombs in Sarajevo to investigate the atrocities.  I would meet the bereaved Mothers of Srebrenica who searched for their children in mass-graves.  I would go on to serve with the UN in other sites of sorrow, in Rwanda and Cambodia, Guatemala and Timor Leste, and I would learn that despite our differences, all human beings suffer the same. 

I had been a starving human rights lawyer with ivy-league credentials.  My friends were making a fortune on Wall Street while I chased the dream of a world in which the powerful would be brought held accountable for atrocities.  My far-fetched legal fantasy was now a reality, but instead of feeling triumphant, I was overcome by a sense of futility.  The monstrous scale of the crimes rendered justice elusive.  How is it possible to punish genocide, I would ask myself?  It was unthinkable to let those that had perpetrated such radical evil to enjoy impunity.  Some justice was better than none.  Yet it was so inadequate against the enormity of the suffering. 

There was a stark contrast between the grim plight of victims and the sophisticated rituals of lawyering, reducing the unspeakable to the anti-septic confines of procedures and arguments, reconciling profound humility with professional hubris.  Litigating high-profile cases, gaining recognition, speaking at conferences, attending gala dinners and award ceremonies - it was all a safe distance from the grim sights I had witnessed on the ground.  It was easy to look down at the arena of anguish from thirty thousand feet and peddle in progressive platitudes.  Sometimes it seemed that human rights had become an industry, exploiting the misfortune of others to demonstrate our virtue.  Just as our vocation as jurists was so important, there was also a manifest need for humility, for understanding that even the most brilliant courtroom pleadings won't bring back the dead. 

Looking back at how Mona's execution shaped my life and career, I realize that no matter what heights of accomplishment we attain, our deepest motivation, our passion to use our profession to make a better world, grows out of intimate learning rather than abstract knowledge.  We understand the value of justice best when we experience injustice.  I also realize now that it is easy to be idealistic when we haven't suffered, and equally effortless to become cynical because of disappointment at an unjust world.  We may be small and insignificant, but within us resides a power to do immense good.  "You are not a drop in the ocean" the great Persian poet Rumi wrote, "You are the entire ocean in a drop."

Payam Akhavan is Professor of International Law, McGill University, Montreal, Canada and Member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. This note is a reflection based on the author's bestselling book "In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey" - The 2017 CBC Massey Lectures published by House of Anansi Press