Payam Akhavan was working in The Hague as a legal adviser to the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when students in his homeland of Iran took to the streets in numbers that had not been seen since the early days of the Islamic Revolution. The July 1999 demonstrations began as a peaceful protest against the closing of a reformist newspaper, but when the government responded by sending the Islamist Basij militia to raid a university dormitory and throw students off upper-floor balconies, it escalated into a confrontation between the guardians of Iran’s theocracy and those who wanted to reform or overthrow it.
Akhavan, whose family left Iran in 1975 and who is now a professor of international law at McGill University, had long believed there was a desire for democratic change in Iran. He and other exiles frequently discussed how this might come about and whether they could do anything about it. But there appeared to be little momentum coming from within Iran, until that July. “We awakened to the fact that what we always knew was an undercurrent of discontent in Iran had finally spilled over,” he says. “And from that point onward there was some consideration given to how can we begin to help these people.”
A year later, another uprising in another part of the world gave Akhavan hope and direction. In October 2000, a non-violent revolution forced the resignation of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who was subsequently turned over to the tribunal in The Hague. Within less than a year, the man who had brought so much death and destruction to the Balkans went from governing a nation to pacing a jail cell and facing charges of war crimes and genocide in a UN-backed court. Barely a shot had been fired.
“Milosevic was once untouchable,” says Akhavan, recalling Milosevic’s presence at peace conferences during and after the Bosnian War. “And for me, as someone who had seen him being treated as a head of state, to see him overthrown and then surrender to The Hague, as an Iranian, it was very inspiring. The two things that came to mind were non-violent resistance and prosecutions, accountability. Those were the two pillars.”
This led Akhavan, who by 2003 was a senior fellow at Yale’s law school and genocide studies program, to join with others with an interest in Iran to found the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center the following year. The institution is dedicated to documenting human rights abuses in Iran and to informing Iranians about international human rights standards, with the goal of building civil society and, eventually, holding those responsible for abuses in Iran to account. It has received funding from private and government sources, including the U.S. State Department, the UN, and Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
Among Akhavan’s colleagues who founded the documentation centre was Ramin Ahmadi, a professor in Yale’s faculty of medicine who left Iran in 1982 at the age of 17. “Some of my young friends in those days were executed and killed by the Revolutionary Guards,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s, referring to the branch of Iran’s military that is most dedicated to preserving the Islamic Revolution. “I never forgot that. I left friends behind. I never forgot that I had some of my best memories from my younger years in Iran. And I always felt that democracy and respect for human rights are the way to go.”
Ahmadi was a keen student of non-violent resistance, particularly the ideas of Gene Sharp, a political scientist and founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, which studies and promotes the use of non-violent action to advance democracy. For several years in the early 2000s, using his own money, Ahmadi had organized workshops on non-violent resistance for hundreds of Iranian democratic activists at locations outside Iran where Iranians could travel without raising suspicion.
“My vision was always that in Iran people are going to want to change this regime,” he says. “And I believed that the way to maximize your chances of reaching democracy and respect for human rights is if your revolution is non-violent. So my vision was that you train young people in non-violent strategy and action, and they go and teach others. It spreads, and you have a young generation that wants to change their lives, and they will go about doing it non-violently. And that helps us make a transition to democracy.”