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Remembering empathy in an interconnected world

What does empathy have to do with human rights? According to Payam Akhavan, international lawyer and McGill University professor, the answer is everything.

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By Ashley Hayes (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: October 8, 2014

“In entering an authentic communion with others, we also discover a profound expression of our own dignity.” – Payam Akhavan (Image: Geraint Rowland/ flickr)

“In entering an authentic communion with others, we also discover a profound expression of our own dignity.” – Payam Akhavan (Image: Geraint Rowland/ flickr)

What does empathy have to do with human rights? According to Payam Akhavan, international lawyer and McGill University professor, the answer is everything. At the 2014 Vancouver Human Rights Lecture, he stated that “building a world [based] on empathy means that we must each assume personal responsibility; that we must enter into an intimate communion with those that suffer.”

In the developed world, it is remarkably easy to turn a blind eye to the poverty, death, and destruction occurring elsewhere. I’ve been guilty of it and I think it would be difficult to find anyone who hasn’t changed the channel, flipped the page, or scrolled down to avoid the depressing stories taking place in developing countries.

When avoiding stories about basic human rights abuses, we tend to forget there could be an effect on every single one of us. There is widespread poverty in Canada, but because it isn’t as widely promoted in the media, or doesn’t seem as bad, we tend to overlook it. As the world is so incredibly interconnected, the things affecting people overseas should affect us as well, especially when you consider how diverse and multicultural Canada is.

I never fully understood the way people in the developing world lived until I visited India last year. I worked in a slum area, stepping around animal feces and open sewers. People lived in one room, often with only one bed, which the entire family shared. Women stayed home to tend to the housework and the family while their husbands went to work. Kids went to school if they were lucky, but many had to stay behind because their families were unable to afford an education.

What I thought would be a depressing three months turned out to be the most eye-opening and amazing experience. People adapted to their circumstances, for better or worse. Organizations worked at a grassroots level to help improve the quality of life for people living in these unfavourable conditions. But most importantly, I saw myself change over a three-month period of time.

When I came home, I was angry at the people around me for being so concerned about their first-world problems. This trip left me with a burning desire to make a change in the world, and gave me genuine empathy for those living without basic human rights. Being empathetic to the needs of others will prompt us to make changes that will help people across the world access the things we take for granted, like healthcare, education, and clean water. If people are willing to take some time to learn about how people live without their basic human rights, we will have the power for real change to occur.

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