Akhavan was born in Tehran, Iran and moved in his childhood to Toronto, Canada to flee persecution of the Baha’i religious minority before the 1979 Islamic revolution. He has since played a leading role as a pioneer of international criminal law and global justice, is regarded as a leading scholar and practitioner of international law and human rights, and an important figure in the Iranian human rights movement. In 2005, he was selected by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader  and in 2013 he was interviewed by BBC's flagship program HardTalk
He is currently an Associate Professor of International Law and former Boulton Senior Fellow at McGill University Faculty of Law in Montreal, Canada (2005–). He served as the first Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor's Office of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague (1994–2000) and made significant contributions to its foundational jurisprudence. He has also served with the UN in Bosnia, Croatia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Timor Leste.
His academic appointments include: Fernand Braudel Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy (2013); Visiting Professor at Sciences Po in Paris, France (2012); Senior Fellow at Yale Law School (2002–05); Distinguished Visiting Professor at University of Toronto (2002); Visiting Professor at Leiden University in The Netherlands; Research Fellow at the Danish Institute of Human Rights in Copenhagen, Denmark (1991–92), and at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo, Faculty of Law (1990–91).
He earned his Bachelor of Law (LLB) (1989) from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto and his Master of Law (LLM) (1990) and Doctor of the Science of Jurisprudence (SJD (2001) from Harvard Law School. His doctoral thesis Reducing Genocide to Law: Definition, Meaning, and the Ultimate Crime was published by Cambridge University Press. This "original and daring book" is about "how jurisprudence is profoundly shaped by human emotion and the limits of language as a medium for capturing such realities" and “how we confront radical evil and suffering.” It has been described as an "articulate meditation" and a “passionately written and informed volume ... based primarily upon compassion for the victims of mass violence everywhere”. According to the Dean of Harvard Law School: “It is rare to have in one place the legal analysis of a scholar, the honest reportage of an eye-witness to history, and the humane reflections of an introspective soul.” The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court endorsed it as “a profound re-thinking of efforts to transform global aspirations into reality” and Justice Richard Goldstone of the Constitutional Court of South Africa considered it “Necessary reading for anyone interested in the jurisprudential and philosophical development of the crime of genocide.”
The relationship between emotion and reason, and the distance between the human rights "industry" and genuine empathy with victims, is a recurring theme in his scholarship. His approach is "profoundly shaped" early life experiences, including the torture and murder of his uncle Dr. Firouz Naimi in the city of Hamadan on 14 June 1981, and the hanging of his contemporary 17 year-old Mona Mahmudnizhad in the city of Shiraz on 18 June 1983, by the Islamic Republic of Iran on grounds that they belonged to the Baha’i "heresy". He was an actor in the popular 1984 music video "Mona with the Children" by Canadian artist Doug Cameron that publicized her story around the world.
His focus on surfacing the voices of victims shaped his Chairmanship of the Global Conference on the Prevention of Genocide (2007). He took the unusual step of bringing together survivors of genocides in an unprecedented conversation with global leaders and a forum of young leaders from across the world. The BBC reported that “survivors from Rwanda, Cambodia, and the Jewish Holocaust” and the "especially extraordinary" elderly Roma Gypsy Holocaust survivor Marika Nene – who came on "the first plane she had ever taken on her first journey outside Hungary" – told "their horrific stories bravely" and gave "a reality check to the experts and UN officials". Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka described the Conference “as one of those points where people meet each other in a spirit of 'egalitarian awareness'.” Together with award-winning film director Robbie Hart, he co-produced the documentary film Genos.Cide: The Great Challenge (2009) based on interviews with genocide survivors from across the world. He also authored the "Report on the Work of the Office of the UN Special Advisor on Prevention of Genocide" (2005). Because of his innovative approaches, he has been described as "one of the most influential human rights thinkers".
He has also published numerous widely cited articles in leading journals on policy and doctrinal aspects of international criminal law. His seminal article, “Beyond Impunity: Can International Criminal Justice Prevent Future Atrocities?” in 95 American Journal of International Law 7 (2001), cited in almost 400 publications, was selected by the International Library of Essays in Law and Legal Theory as one of “the most significant published journal essays in contemporary legal studies.”
Payam Akhavan is recognized as a pioneer in the field of international criminal law. He wrote his LLM thesis at Harvard Law School in 1990 on "Enforcement of the Genocide Convention" published in the 12 Human Rights Law Journal 285 (1991) at a time when the prospect of an international criminal court was remote. Shortly after graduation, amidst the "ethnic cleansing" campaign in the former Yugoslavia, he was appointed to the mission – together with Ambassador Hans Corell of Sweden who would go on to become the UN Legal Counsel – of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) (now the OSCE) Mission of Rapporteurs under the Moscow Human Dimension Mechanism to Croatia (30 September to 5 October 1992) that first recommended establishment of an ad hoc international criminal jurisdiction for the former Yugoslavia. The Mission travelled to the devastated city of Vukovar and other locations to conduct on-site investigations, and on 9 February 1993, submitted a “Proposal for an International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.” Subsequently, on 22 February 1993, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 808 in which it recommended establishment of an ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and referred to the CSCE Report and Proposal. In January 1993, at age 26, Payam Akhavan had become the youngest ever human rights Rapporteur, appointed by the European Community (now European Union) Presidency, under the Chairmanship of Denmark, and prepared the “Report of the CSCE Mission to Inspect Alleged Places of Detention in the Republics of Serbia and Montenegro, 13–18 January 1993” under the Chairmanship of United States Ambassador Kenneth Blackwell. From April 1993, he was appointed as a Human Rights Officer in the Field Office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for the former Yugoslavia, former Polish Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, based in Zagreb. He prepared several investigative reports on atrocities that were submitted to the UN Human Rights Commission (now the Human Rights Council).
Within days of his UN deployment in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he uncovered the massacre of hundreds of Muslim civilians in the village of Ahmici. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt on 2 May 1993 during the investigation, and later testified against the perpetrators before the ICTY. When he approached an elderly woman who was a potential witness to the massacre:
“a few seconds later we heard sniper fire, which apparently was directed towards us and at that point we realised that someone did not want us in the village investigating the atrocities, and we began to run away and under heavy sniper fire managed to make it back to the Scimitar [armoured vehicle] and one of the soldiers that was with us was struck by a bullet”.
He received a commendation for his work from the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva. On 3 April 1994, he joined the ICTY in The Hague and became the first Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor's Office, three months prior to the appointment of South African jurist Richard Goldstone as the first Prosecutor in July 1994. During this period, he also worked under President Antonio Cassese of Italy and prepared a Memorandum on the Law of Genocide that would become influential in the ICTY's jurisprudence in the years that followed. In 1997, at age 30, he successfully argued the first appeals case before the ICTY in the case of Prosecutor v Erdemovic concerning the defence of duress in the mass-execution of 1,200 Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995. He also drafted the Prosecutor's submissions on several fundamental questions of international criminal law – on the scope and definition of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and grounds of liability – in the landmark case of Prosecutor v Tadic. He was also involved in drafting the indictments against leadership figures such as Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic. As Legal Advisor, he also wrote influential commentaries in Human Rights Quarterly on the mutually reinforcing relationship between peace and justice in the former Yugoslavia and organized high-level meetings with Harvard Law School and the Åbo Akademi Institute in Finland bringing together the ICTY Prosecutor with Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg and other key figures in the UN Peace Conference.
He also helped establish the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, advised the UN Historical Clarification Commission in Guatemala under the Chairmanship of Christian Tomuschat, contributed to judicial training in Timor Leste and Cambodia, and subsequently advised on the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders.
He acted as counsel for Croatian General Ante Gotovina in relation to allegations of crimes against humanity arising from Operation Storm in 1995. In 2012, Gotovina was acquitted of all charges by the ICTY Appeals Chamber.
International courts and tribunals
Subsequent to the ICTY, he joined the International Dispute Settlement practice of Debevoise & Plimpton in New York as a senior attorney (2001–03). He is a member of the New York State bar and the Upper Canada Law Society and has acted as counsel and advocate on leading cases before international courts and tribunals. He advised the Government of Peru on the extradition of former President Alberto Fujimori from Japan for human rights abuses (2002–05). He advised the Government of Haiti on the prosecution of Jean-Claude Duvalier for crimes against humanity (2011). He also advised Uganda on the 2003–04 referral of the Lord's Resistance Army case to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first ever proceeding before the Court. Within two years of the referral, the strategy of isolation and defections had severely diminished Joseph Kony's forces, putting an end to the armed conflict, and the abduction and forced conscription of thousands of child soldiers in Acholiland. He also served as counsel before the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission in the Prisoners of War and several other cases arising from the 1998–2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia armed conflict. In the United States Supreme Court case of Hamdi v Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld v Padilla, he was amicus curiae together with former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, Brigadier General David Brahms, Rear Admiral Don Guter, and others, to argue for applicability of the 1949 Geneva Conventions to detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. He was counsel before the International Court of Justice in the Case Concerning Application of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Georgia v Russia) concerning allegations of "ethnic cleansing" in South Ossetia during the August 2008 armed conflict between Georgia and Russia. He was also counsel in Akcam v Turkey before the European Court of Human Rights in an historical victory following the assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul. The Judgment held that Turkey could no longer make speech on the 1915 Armenian genocide a crime under its laws. He is also counsel to Libya before the ICC in the case concerning Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi and Abdullah Al-Senussi whether the ICC or Libyan courts will prosecute allegations of crimes against humanity arising from the 2011 revolution against Muammar Gaddafi.
He has also appeared as counsel in the Guyana v Suriname maritime boundary delimitation in the Caribbean arbitrated under the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention in which Guyana won 93% of an oil concession block that was in dispute. He was counsel in Dispute Concerning Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary Between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal, the first maritime delimitation dispute before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg.
In 2013 he acted as counsel for Japan in the Whaling in the Antarctic Case brought by Australia before the International Court of Justice alleging that Japan's program of scientific research was commercial whaling in disguise. He accused Australia of imposing its cultural values on Japan in disregard of international law and warned that politicization of science and anti-whaling "zero tolerance" policies for non-endangered species at the International Whaling Commission had brought the organization to the brink of collapse and undermined effective global regulation of whaling.
In 2008, he was counsel to Sheikh Hasina – one of two surviving daughters of Bangladesh's founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after his assassination and the massacre of his family in 1974 – while she was imprisoned to avoid her participation in national elections. He campaigned for her release and in December 2008 she became Prime Minister in a landslide electoral victory.
Rights & Democracy controversy
In 2009, he was appointed by the Government of Canada to the board of directors of the International Centre for Rights & Democracy. He resigned in protest a year later in 2010, together with the Head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, Sima Samar, because of false accusations by certain Board members that the organization's President, Remy Beauregard, had supported terrorist groups. Beauregard died the same day of a heart attack because of high stress, giving rise to a national political controversy. The accusations were based on the funding of Palestinian and Israeli human rights NGOs Al-Haq, Al-Mezan, and B’Tselem after the 2009 Gaza conflict. A Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Canadian House of Commons acquitted Beauregard and recommended that the Board members responsible for the allegations “issue an apology to Mr. Beauregard's family for any statements damaging his reputation.” The apology was never made.
Iran human rights advocacy
Payam Akhavan is an important figure in the Iranian human rights movement and related Persian-language media. He Co-founded the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre to establish a record of the Islamic Republic's human rights abuses and promote individual accountability for crimes. His initiative to bring justice to his country of origin was featured in the New York Times. He met with Prime Minister Harper to persuade him to file criminal charges against the notorious Iranian prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi for the 2003 torture and murder of Canadian-Iranian journalist Zahra Kazemi in Tehran's Evin prison. In 2006, Prime Minister Harper called for the arrest of Mortazavi based on information that he would transit Germany while returning to Tehran from the inaugural meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Mortazavi took the direct flight instead and avoided arrest, though he did not leave Iran again.
He served as Steering Committee member and Prosecutor of the Iran People's Tribunal, a victim-based truth commission and informal court in exile, to expose the mass-executions of political prisoners in Iran during the 1980s. This includes Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa for the mass-execution of some 5,000 people in the summer of 1988, which Payam Akhavan has called “Iran's Srebrenica”. The campaign's widespread media coverage succeeded in an unprecedented admission by the Islamic Republic that these atrocities took place and that they may have been wrong.
He promoted training and advocacy of non-violent resistance in Iran long before the “Green Revolution.” He was featured in the award-winning film The Green Wave. He predicted the Arab Spring in the film, stating in February 2010 that the Iranian popular uprising was “not just a rebellion, but a seismic shift, a democratic tidal wave which will not just irreversibly change the future of Iran but of the entire Middle East.” He has testified before the European Parliament, United States Commissions, and the Canadian Parliament, advocating non-violent democratic transitions, emphasis on human rights rather than the nuclear issue, targeted sanctions against human rights abusers, and firmly opposing war.
He has collaborated closely with and published opinion editorials with Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi on Iran human rights issues, including an important opinion in the Washington Post. He was the academic supervisor of Nargess Tavassolian, Shirin Ebadi's daughter, during her graduate studies at McGill University. In August 2008, the Iranian Government press made the "accusation" that “Nargess Tavassolian converted to Bahá’ísm in 2007 under the direction of Payam Akhavan and started her activities in the Association for Bahá’í Studies” amidst death threats against Ebadi for “serving the foreigners and the Baha’is.” The propaganda attack and threats ultimately backfired, resulting in an unprecedented expression of solidarity with Baha’is by Iranian civil society and even prominent Shi’a clerics such as Ayatollah Montazeri.
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