In Search of a Better World (book review)
by Arthur Lyon Dahl
One of the most unsustainable aspects of the modern world is the continuing presence of massive violations of human rights, which our technological sophistication only make more visible, numbing our human sensibility. In "In Search of a Better World: A Human RIghts Odyssey" (Canada: House of Anansi Press, 2017), based on the 2017 Massey Lectures, Payam Akhavan has written a most remarkable and moving autobiography, which immediately reached number one for non-fiction on the Canadian best-seller list upon its publication in September. You cannot help but be profoundly touched on reading it.
The author, himself a religious refugee as a child from the persecution of the Baha'is in Iran, went on to become a distinguished human rights lawyer, UN investigator of genocide in Bosnia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Rwanda and Timor-Leste, UN Prosecutor at The Hague, a member of the International Court of Arbitration, and now Professor of International Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He has met both the victims and perpetrators of genocide, and delves deeply into the causes and effects of mass hatred and violence from the perspective of one who has been there and seen it. This is a deeply human book, sharing moments of compassion and revulsion, of tenderness and understanding, while acknowledging that the depths of human suffering can never be fully shared, and admiring the strength of the human spirit to rise above even the most unimaginable horrors.
He begins with the knowledge of suffering, both his own and that of his family and fellow Baha'is in Iran. This started him on a pursuit of global justice, leading to a doctorate from Harvard Law School. He traces the evolution of international law holding leaders individually accountable for their acts, from the Nuremberg trials after World War II, to the creation of the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia where he was one of the first UN prosecutors, and a similar tribunal for Rwanda, leading to the establishment of the International Criminal Court. His work took him into the field, to Sarajevo in the midst of its murderous siege and to the opposing Bosnian Serb Republic, to the Rwanda of a massacred million, to visit mass graves and interview victims, leading finally to justice as a redemption for our shared humanity.
A major theme is the selectiveness of our will to intervene, taking action when it is in some geopolitical or economic interest, or leaving millions to a violent fate when no one outside seems to care, until it is too late. I was myself on a UN committee with the role to anticipate humanitarian crises and to pre-position aid for a humanitarian response. We failed to anticipate the scale of the Rwandan genocide and the role of extremist radio to incite mass murder. Akhavan dissects how that whole process unfolded, with the UN simply withdrawing since the big powers did not want to get involved. His analysis is important, as it shows the importance of early intervention to prevent the spread of hatred and violence before genocide can get under way.
He is understandably critical of academia and the ivory tower that dissects human suffering and calamity from a distance, and well as the halls of diplomacy at the United Nations, with high words and hand-wringing followed by cowardice and inaction. He shows again and again how cynical politicians in pursuit of national interests are always ready to sacrifice the poor for power and profit. The book exposes the revolting underbelly of Western "civilization" and the superficiality of materialistic consumer society where unimaginable horrors elsewhere appear briefly in the media and then vanish, until finally they spill over into terrorism at home.
In one chapter, he shows how geopolitical rivalry leading to the war in Afghanistan planted the seeds of terrorist movements that eventually reached out to Western capitals and the destruction of the twin towers in New York, where his family narrowly escaped death. More recently, Syria has been a tragic victim of the same self-interest and paralysis. He explores rape as an instrument of war, the exploitation of child soldiers, and other modern human rights abuses, where evil has been cultivated for selfish benefit. This contrasts with the emerging spirit of human rights and the positive signs of a growing awareness of the oneness of humankind and our higher human purpose.
Despite the repeated stories of abuse, violence and horror, this is ultimately a hopeful book, showing the power of the human spirit to overcome the unimaginable, how suffering can lead to a blossoming of higher human qualities. Akhavan's story itself is one of a dogged search for truth and justice, and the small steps that can gradually lead to the necessary changes in society to respond to the depths of depravity in which we still too often find ourselves. Those of us who have not seen such evil at close range can take this book as a lesson that we too must act to make the world a better place.
Last updated 4 November 2017