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book review

Payam Akhavan.

"Human rights are a thousand humble stories."

So writes the Iranian-Canadian human-rights lawyer and McGill professor Payam Akhavan in his contribution to the long-running Massey Lecture series, In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey. "Feeling injustice is the only means of understanding justice," he insists, "[and] stories, both enchanting and heartbreaking, are the only means of knowing why our dignity matters." As a lawyer, Akhavan should know that neither of these statements are defensible. Nevertheless, they serve as an indication of his lecture's Davos-style aphoristic muscle-flexing and as the intellectual ballast, however unwieldy, for the text to come.

In Search of a Better World is both memoir and manifesto. It begins with reminiscences of a largely happy early childhood in Iran under the Shah, a life that was tinged with a certain darkness. The Akhavan clan were practising Baha'i, a religious minority persecuted under the torpid Qajar Dynasty, slightly less so during the reign of the last Shah and then purged brutally following the Islamic revolution. The Baha'i pogroms that Akhavan recounts are beyond horrific; in terms of an origin story for a human-rights lawyer, this section more than delivers. Luckily for Akhavan's immediate family, Canada provided safe haven, and they dodged the worst of the violence.

The lectures now morph into a standard Canadian literary trope: the immigrant narrative. This being the mid-seventies, let's just say that the future lawyer's new Labatt Blue-swilling compatriots were as skillful at racial slurs as they were at slapshots. Still, without a guide to Akhavan's rhetorical methodology, it's hard to know where we're going with all this stuff, although it does seem as if we're being nudged toward the swirl of identity politics: This is how a brown Iranian boy, epigenetically coded with an understanding of intolerance, comes to develop a conflicted sense of self within the pressurized lab of a Canadian high school, all of it marinated in the sorrow and pain of murdered Baha'i back home.

"There was seemingly no escape from this prison of identity," he writes. "Confined by its oppressive walls, the best I could do was to retreat inside of myself and find comfort in romanticized memories, a stubborn clinging to an increasingly perfect past."

Those impulses are, of course, what drive people toward society's fringes, seeking funhouse mirrors for their anger and loneliness. Amazingly, Akhavan believes that such experiences are destined to ebb and that there'll be a downturn in backward-baseball-cap-wearing yokels punching brown boys in the face for the offence of being "Paki."

"[T]he reality today," he notes, "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."

Is this true? Are the extremists "panicking," or are they dining out on a vast revolution pitted against the (liberal and illiberal) forces of globalism, an orgy of Balkanization that stretches from the Central African Republic (where I have first-hand experience of exactly this process) to Kansas to Yorkshire? In other words, are the extremists not expressing the will of "the people" far more so than the reasoned elites? More to the point, do the "irresistible forces of globalization" dispense their munificence equally? And what does all of this mean for the future of human rights, or for a Star Trek Federation-style conglomeration of peoples, universally linked by both outlook and values?

Instead of confronting these questions head-on, Akhavan walks us through his experiences as the youngest war-crimes prosecutor in United Nations history, and as one of the pioneering litigators at The Hague's International Criminal Court. We go from the battlefields of Harvard University, to the Balkans during the war, to Rwanda directly after the genocide, to Afghanistan during its endless season of hell and to other destinations that are unlikely to make it onto your holiday bucket list. Even when he's safe in New York and about to enjoy a quiet, lucrative stint as a practising lawyer, two aircraft smash into the Word Trade Center, and for several agonizing hours he loses track of his wife and young son, who were on the way to the buildings to take in the phantom view.

These passages are defined by rage, bitterness and sorrow, a cri de coeur from inside the PTSD horror show. Nonetheless, the notion that the ethnic slaughter-fest in the Balkans somehow represented a primordial tribal reality did not sit well with Akhavan, who dismisses Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" narrative as "appealing to thinkers whose simplistic binary vision could not fathom the alternative vision of an inextricably interdependent world." Ethnic war – or, at least, lighting the tinder that sparks such conflagrations – was the act of individual humans, a power dynamic that had explicit legal implications. In human-rights terms, this was a revolutionary notion. "It was to us not a clash of civilizations that was at issue but a clash between civilization and barbarity, with justice as the dividing line between the two."

In these sections, Akhavan recounts a (surprisingly slight) history of the slow drift toward the development of universal human rights as a legal concept: "It would be exactly 300 years of wars and genocide, from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, before we reimagined international law and national sovereignty in light of the core principle of human rights rather than brute force," he writes. We then arrive at the "victor's justice" of the Nuremberg trials, followed by an interregnum brought about by mutually assured destruction and the hyper-rational insanity of the Cold War.

But it wasn't until the 1970s that a new moral horizon properly opened up. In 1977, Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize, and suddenly a new age of international advocacy, driven by entities called "non-governmental organizations," was upon us. U.S. president Jimmy Carter, following the gruesome Vietnam mop-up, declared that human rights would serve as the guiding rationale of foreign policy as the world matured along with these new, unbendable "rights." The revolutionary esprit of 1968 had been abandoned; this was a legalistic, Talmudic upending of the immoral and inhuman behaviour perpetrated by governments across the world. Rights, which had always been created and protected by the state, were suddenly being used to transcend or subvert the state's authority. The new utopia would be presided over by lawyers. As the human-rights historian Samuel Moyn puts it, "the central event in human-rights history is the recasting of rights as entitlements that might contradict the sovereign nation state from above and outside rather than serve as its foundation."

As with many of his contemporaries, including Michael Ignatieff, Akhavan's sensibilities were branded by the atrocities he witnessed first-hand in the Bosnian war, which, among other things, served as a blood-drenched coming-of-age for Clinton-era humanists. The Dayton Peace Accords, and the subsequent tribunals that would drag Slobodan Milosevic into the dock, were the beginning of a new phase of legal entitlements, one that was being more or less repeated in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia: the end to individual impunity following the perpetuation of massacres or genocides. All of this culminated in the signing of the Rome Statute in 1998, which enshrined the ICC as the key weapon in the prosecution of international lawfare, ushering in, as Akhavan puts it, the "age of global justice."

Or so the story went. Because really, what's changed? And this, I'm afraid, is where Akhavan's lecture goes headfirst through the windscreen. He is understandably frustrated at how the whole human-rights project has turned out and appears ready to lose his nut at the state of the United Nations. (Join the club.) But with his immense trove of experience, it is too much to expect some surprising insights or prognostications? The latter sections of the book are characterized by goopy sentimentality, crossed with nonsense such as the following: "The fanatical Mullah Omar feared any gods that competed with the angry god he had created in his impoverished imagination." This isn't merely meaningless, because willfully it ignores the political possibilities inherent in Omar's "fanaticism." Instead, the gods Omar is assumed to have "feared" are enlisted in Akhavan's own Global Oneness proselytization.

In leaping around epochs and ideas, the writing becomes Barney purple; the insights devolve into standard left-of-centre rants, or worse, bumper-stickerisms: "We are being infused with a wider loyalty, witnessing the rise of an unprecedented consciousness that we all belong to a single emerging world civilization, that our survival depends on acceptance of a transcendent ethos of human dignity for all."

Back that statement up, and you have the happiest reader on the planet. Akhavan doesn't bother coming close.

Barack Obama, Akhavan's fellow Harvard Law School alumnus, loved quoting (out of context) Martin Luther King, who was quoting (in context) the 19th-century clergyman Theodore Parker when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It is perhaps equally deterministic to think of history as little more than a syndicated TV show: a jumble of indistinguishable episodes, played endlessly on repeat, until the set goes dead. We may indeed be saved from both the fake arc and/or endless Nietzschean recurrence by a coherent understanding – and one day, prosecution – of universal human rights. But they are not "a thousand humble stories." They need to be the work of lapidaries, carved into gemstones, and then studded in a code of living. Human rights are barely 70 years old. So less lecturing, perhaps, and more prosecuting. After all, talk is cheap, but the lawyers sure aren't.

Richard Poplak's most recent book is Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa's Changing Fortunes. He is currently working on a book about mining. He splits his time between Toronto and Johannesburg.

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