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January 11, 2015

Rights and Dignity in an Interdependent World
Leading legal scholar provides hopeful insights on the state of international human rights

Dr. Payam AkhavanOn November 13, Dr. Payam Akhavan of McGill University, shared his expertise in the field of international human rights in a public lecture at the University of Ottawa entitled “Human Rights in Decline? Redefining Dignity in a World of Extremes.” The event was jointly hosted by the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, the Philippe Kirsh Institute and the Ottawa Bahá’í Community. The large crowd was engaged by Akhavan’s ability to provide fresh perspectives on the questions of human rights, illustrated with historical examples and his extensive personal experience in precedent-setting international human rights tribunals. Many left with a sense that indeed there was cause for hope and encouragement in the global progress of human rights.

Throughout his talk, Akhavan emphasized the fact that we are all increasingly aware of the interdependent nature of our world. Globalization has its dark sides, but it also provides evidence of an emerging interdependent global culture, which includes a gradually expanding expectations of human rights. He quoted the Persian poet Saadi, who said that all humans are “the limbs of a single body” each feeling the pain of the whole, noting that the great poets and philosophers have always known this, but that with technology and social media, it becomes apparent to all of us in a very immediate and tangible way. As the world’s interdependence becomes more and more obvious, Akhavan asserted that the promotion of human rights is not idealism, it is realism.

Those who continue to violate human rights and who try to exercise power through hate are unrealistic, said Akhavan, because they fail to understand the interdependent nature of the modern, globally connected world. The “pyromaniacs” and “ethnic entrepreneurs” as he called them, who resist a world of rights, have to go to great efforts to try and resurrect “old hatreds,” “instrumentally evoking tradition from an imagined past to serve their present day purposes.” 

He challenged those in the West to recall Europe’s long, slow and troubled path to its current understanding of human rights. It took 400 years of bloody strife for modern Europe to build up functioning democracies, the rule of law and respect for human rights. It was simply not realistic, he said for those in the West to expect other countries to develop fully functional democratic legal systems within a single generation, let alone a few years. Nonetheless, he told the audience that he was inspired by his recent visits to Afghanistan, where he observed remarkable progress being advanced by a new generation. He gave many other examples from his international experience that provided evidence of a gradually expanding, if still uneven, system of law and international human rights.

Akhavan directly challenged the argument still made by some regimes with poor human rights records that human rights were foreign to their traditional cultures. While our current legal conception of human rights does have a particular historical origin, the concept of human rights rests on a deeper more universal understanding of human dignity. He used many cross-cultural examples to show that the key concept of human dignity is found in all major civilizations, from ancient China to ancient Persia. Even the so-called western tradition of Renaissance humanism was deeply indebted to the Islamic heritage of Bahgdad and Dasmascus centuries earlier. Through several examples, he made the case that beneath the formal legal tradition of rights there exists a universal understanding of human dignity supported by the traditions of all major civilizations.

Akhavan downplayed the need to come to an abstract theoretical agreement about rights as the legal expression of dignity however, especially noting that in many countries, people will find diverse ways to articulate their support for human rights. For good reason, many countries do not wish to tie rights to western ideas if that also means accepting the baggage of a “consumerism that rests on atomized individualism,” he said, “which homogenizes and uproots culture, invading inner spaces in a way that older forms of colonialism did not.”

Instead, he highlighted the practical common ground that emerges when we come face to face with the real experience of human dignity. The four year old orphan in Darfur evokes in all people an authentic realization of human dignity that crosses cultures and provides a powerful motivation to action.

Question PeriodHe left his audience with a hopeful message about the actions that we can and must take close to home, in our own lives. Having functioning legal institutions is not sufficient to guarantee rights unless there is also a culture of respect for human dignity to support those institutions. He reminded us of Edmund Burke’s statement that “evil triumphs when good people do nothing” and challenged us to practically translate this into our lives.

The “most important battleground of a just society,” Akhavan asserted, “is not in corridors of power but how we define ourselves as communities.” He emphasized the importance of each individual reflecting on the question “How can I find a space in my community where I can do some good?” The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, he said, it began with words of hate, fear and intolerance that spread throughout society. “The true human rights heroes,” in his eyes, were, “those serving in their communities.”

Video links

    The video of this talk is now available on the CIPS website
    Interview on the BBC show “HardTalk”

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