International human rights lawyer discusses genocide and conflict

Payam Akhavan shares his perspective as a prosecutor and defender of genocide victims

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This is a photo of the International Criminal Court building in Geneva. The sign is clearly visible, in front of the building.
PHOTO: jbdodane / Flickr

By: Olivia Sherman, News Writer

Content warning: mentions of violence and genocide. 

Payam Akhavan is an international human rights lawyer and special advisor to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). He’s best known for his work with the United Nations (UN) investigating conflicts and protecting survivors of genocide. The Peak attended Akhavan’s panel, titled “A Search for Justice,” where he discussed recent global conflicts. 

Akhavan described the search for justice as a journey, best understood “not as intellectual abstraction, but experiential knowledge, through encounters with injustice.” Despite his work trying to bring justice to others, Akhavan feels a “profound sense of futility,” even with his victories, because the damage to people is already done. “Justice is imperative, someone must be punished, someone must be held accountable for what happened. But on the other hand, you realize that justice is not going to bring back [ . . . ] lives that are forever extinguished.” 

While Akhavan may be successful in reaching justice for victims, he does not measure this as success, “because, technically, it’s already too late.” 

Working with the UN, Akhavan investigated sites of violence and conflict in Croatia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Guatemala, Bosnia, and Timor Leste. He defended victims and survivors of genocide in Iran, Iraq, and Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar. As an advocate and counsel, Akhavan served on the European Court of Human Rights, The Supreme Court of Canada, the ICC, and the Supreme Court of the United States. Akhavan is also the co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, a non-profit that documents the state of human rights in Iran. 

In order to bring justice to those impacted, Akhavan needs access to the scene of the conflict, such as “the village in which homes were burnt, [and] people were massacred.” He also needs as many testimonies and witnesses as he can get, which can often be impossible in cases of mass deaths because all possible witnesses have been killed. “International criminal justice is not about the ‘whodunnit murder mystery,’ where one person has been killed and the question is who pulled the trigger [ . . . ] those who are most responsible are typically not those who pulled the trigger, it’s those who ordered them.” 

ICC testimonies, for this reason, must be fact-based. Akhavan looks for the who, what, when, and where of an act. “If you have a witness on the stand, the witness cannot come and tell her story for the court. The court is not interested in the fact that she has suffered. The court is interested in whether she can testify.” He described the questions the prosecution will ask as “very clinical, very precise,” in order to get the exact details of an event. 

Akhavan said defining actual terms, such as genocide, can be ambiguous at best. Yet, “if you don’t call it genocide, it’s not worthy of attention.” Akhavan said there is a very narrow definition of what genocide really is. “Not just extermination, not simply mass destruction or mass murder, but an intention to destroy a group as such.” While it is important to clearly define these terms, debating over labels like genocide, mass murder, or crimes against humanity does not “absolve responsibility” from those committing the violence.  

Despite the state of global conflicts, Akhavan has optimism for change. “International law is a work in progress,” he said, but noted people are changing their ways. He said genocide-resilient societies built on empathy are needed. He wishes to see a future in which he is “unemployed happily,” where his job as a legal “trauma surgeon” is unnecessary. “We have to do what we can, sometimes against all odds, because the alternative is despair.” 

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