By Tiran Rahimian
One of the very first remarks made by my darling mother upon my return to Montreal was, perhaps unsurprisingly, that I had lost a fatally dangerous amount of weight. At first, I curtly brushed off the observation as an archetypal exaggeration of maternal love. But confronted to the cold, hard numbers of our bathroom scale, I couldn’t help but ponder on the reasons of this incontrovertible reduction of my body mass. It surely wasn’t malnourishment? I spent the equivalent of my Montreal rent every month at the delightfully nutritious Whole Foods Market buffet near Bryant Park. Certainly not over-exercising either? As much as I liked to profess to my friends that I was jogging every morning in Central Park (in part by recycling saved snaps of the same run over and over again), I simply lacked the stamina and willpower to stick to a proper cardio routine.
I realize that, surely for physiological reasons beyond my understanding, I tend to lose significant weight whenever I’m pushed out of my comfort zones for a protracted amount of time. I lost weight when, after a comfortable upbringing in Montreal, I returned to my native Tehran to finish my middle school. I also lost weight in my first months of law school, and again when I began clerking at the Court of Appeal last year. And HRW undeniably fit into that trend: my time in New York city profoundly challenged me on both intellectual and personal fronts, and, while ultimately cementing and confirming many of my previous convictions, compelled me to go through a long process reflection on of some of the drivers that had underpinned my interest in international justice.
In IJ circles, the enduring debate on whether seeking accountability for grave international crimes interferes with prospects for peace is close to always brushed off with the self-evident response that there is ‘no peace without justice’. But the tension, I came to learn, is anything but axiomatic. With the inception of the UN Security Council Commission of Experts for the Former Yugoslavia in October 1992 – at a time when the UN-EU International Conference was already managing a peace process – the stage appeared set for a tense relationship between accountability for core international crimes on the one hand, and international mandates for peace and reconciliation on the other hand. The already polarized ‘peace versus justice’ debate crystallized with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1994, paving the way for a broad discourse on the compatibility of the two.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission– and its wide media coverage following the fall the Apartheid government – was heralded by some ‘peace-before-justice’ proponents as demonstrating the importance of pacifying, or at least postponing, calls for criminal justice accountability until after peace has taken proper hold. The temptation to suspend justice in exchange for promises to end a conflict has similarly arisen with respect to the International Criminal Court’s work in places like Darfur and Uganda, and threatens to recur in coming years as conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar approach their conclusion. Thankfully, the symbiotic relationship between peace, justice, and building a sustainable culture of human rights isn’t merely heralded as a self-evident truth, but has also been subject to empirical analysis by scholars and organizations like HRW itself.
Rereading myself, the relationship between my weight loss and reflections on justice and reconciliation is perhaps…spurious. But I still like to think that my time working at HRW pushed me out of my professional and intellectual comfort zones, and was ultimately one of personal growth. Witnessing firsthand the inner workings of an NGO as influential and remarkable as HRW, hanging around diplomats at UN meetings, and working on the most pressing matters of international justice across the globe will certainly stand out as one of the more delightful challenges of my time at McGill law.