By Rebekah Sears
“We cannot remain comfortably detached from the painful realities and urgent challenges [of our time] … There can be no meaningful change if we choose to look down at the arena of anguish from thirty thousand feet,” Payam Akhavan, In Search of a Better World: A human rights odyssey, 5-6.
Today’s world is facing a seemingly never-ending stream of conflicts and human-made humanitarian crises. It is exhausting and disheartening to even follow the news and the stories of suffering. On top of this, the punditry and competing narratives – often steeped in self-interest and cynicism – brings further the division and dehumanization of suffering. It is difficult to even imagine a way forward.
At high-level decision-making tables in Canada and around the world, policy makers and pundits debate potential solutions. There are no shortages of experts, theories and summits, but the suffering persists. Of course, there has been significant globally-led change and collaboration aimed at alleviating suffering, yet so many crises protract for years or even decades, while new crises continue to emerge.
McGill International Law Professor and human rights activist Payam Akhavan, the 2017 CBC Massey Lecturer, has spent much of his career in these high-level bodies, addressing human-made atrocities. He has served as legal counsel on numerous international courts, including the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and in The Hague for the International Court of Justice.
Yet, Akhavan argues there is a significant element missing from many of these high-level conversations: addressing such crises from the foundation of our common humanity, coupled with a deep and personal knowledge of human suffering – moving forward with a revolution of empathy.
A resolution cannot fit in a neat policy package made “at thirty thousand feet,” comfortably detached from human suffering. The policy expertise is, of course, indispensable, but without a foundation of humanity and empathy, Akhavan envisions that even the most well-thought-out plans will fall short.
In his Massey lectures and accompanying book, In Search of a Better World: A human rights odyssey, Akhavan brings readers on a journey through his own suffering – fleeing persecution in Iran– to his career, encountering the aftermaths of atrocities. Through the lens of common humanity, he examines human rights laws, mechanisms for pursuing justice, and the Will to Intervene – for the long-run.
In the world of human rights policy, it is easy to be engulfed with analysis and punditry at the expense of humanization. There is a temptation to divide players into simple categories – “allies” and “enemies” –succumbing to the inevitability of conflict, all while making grand proclamations about the future.
Bringing perspectives and stories of common humanity to the table is not about warming the hearts of policy makers. Instead, Akhavan is calling for a significant shift in how policy ideas are conceived and developed, factoring in an understanding of suffering, with its complexities. It is about muddying the waters where policy options once seemed clear, and laying the foundation for the long road of change.
As I listened to Akhavan’s words I found myself nodding along, laughing, crying, feeling despair, but also a deep sense of solidarity and hope. I found it easy to make the connection with MCC and our work – first to embrace the Christian principle of recognizing that all human beings are made in the image of God. And second, in peacebuilding, engaging local partners, seeking just and genuine relationships.
Working in MCC Ottawa’s Advocacy Office, I regularly find myself engulfed in policy-speak and political commentary. Yet, it’s always been the human connections – visiting people face to face, hearing stories, seeing the image of God in everyone – that truly fuel my own passion and pursuit of justice and peace. An empathy-based approach is not about feeling warm and fuzzy inside. It is about seeking a common humanity, in all its complexities, and creating spaces to imagine the road to justice.
“In a world of dizzying distractions and endless entertainment, where even suffering has been reduced to a spectacle, we must rediscover the profound power of the everyday, of heartfelt compassion, of the transcendent healing connections that transform our impoverished culture of indifference from the bottom up. The political pendulum swings intermittently from the superficial sentimentality of liberals to the populist rage of demagogues, and we imagine foolishly that we can trust those in power to bring about meaningful change. Such apathy is the best accomplice of evil in the world. We need to take more seriously the immense impact of our own empathy, of our own engagement – of our responsibility both to comfort those who suffer and to awaken those who suffer from too much comfort. Just as the oppressed must be made whole, so too must the complacent…The cure that a world groaning from emptiness needs most is a grassroots conspiracy of authenticity, implemented by transactions of selfless beauty,” Akhavan, In Search of a Better World, 333-334.