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In the public eye

University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran is determined to use his high-profile academic position to fight for the rights of the less fortunate

By DANIEL DROLET | NOV 05 2007

He still remembers the man’s name: Florian Achille Biza. It was the early 1990s and Amir Attaran, a university graduate, had decided to hitchhike across Africa before starting doctoral studies at Oxford University. Mr. Biza, a Congolese about his own age, came up to him one day while he was walking down a street in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, and just started chatting.

That chat put a face on the harsh inequalities of the world and changed Mr. Attaran’s life. It struck him as grossly unfair that he would soon fly to Oxford for a fine education and entry to a comfortable life, while Mr. Biza – a man who spoke three European languages – would remain in Brazzaville to face an uncertain future.

“Without any doubt, Florian Achille Biza is a more intelligent person than I am,” mused Dr. Attaran years later in an Ottawa coffee shop, remembering their conversations. “Why shouldn’t it have been him rather than me getting on the plane for Oxford? It was just an accident of birth.

“I want to live in a world where there are fewer accidents of birth.”

Dr. Attaran is now a professor and Canada Research Chair in law, population health and global development policy at the University of Ottawa. Trained as a biologist and a lawyer, his work with the Institute of Population Health and the faculty of law was in many ways inspired by that chance meeting in Brazzaville. As a high-profile academic whose name is increasingly familiar to Canadians, he is doing all he can to make sure there is more equity in the world by being a vocal spokesman for health and human rights issues.

Earlier this year, for example, he created a stir in the media and on Parliament Hill by repeatedly drawing attention to the plight of Afghan prisoners captured by the Canadian army and then handed over to Afghan national security forces, where there were multiple reports of prisoners being abused. He has championed the renewed use of DDT in fighting malaria and argued that the World Bank should incorporate democratic principles in its funding criteria.

He does not shy away from stirring the pot. In fact, Dr. Attaran says it is his duty as an academic to raise difficult issues and fuel public debate. The open, articulate and above all down-to-earth 41-year-old says that with his privileged education, it would be “flatly unethical” to walk into a six-figure salary and not give something back.

Amir Attaran was born and raised in California. His parents had moved to the United States from Iran in the 1960s, well before the revolution. They’d come to study and had expected to go home after graduation; instead, they settled there. His mother was a child psychologist (“I’m her product!” he jokes) and his father was head economist for the California transportation department.

His academic CV tells of an exceptional career so far: He studied at the University of California, Berkeley (BA), Caltech (MSc), Oxford (PhD) and the University of British Columbia (LLB). He’s held fellowships and lectureships at Harvard, Yale and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He is – among many other things – an editorial consultant to The Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal.

“I’m at the University of Ottawa largely because of the Canada Research Chair,” says Dr. Attaran, who joined the faculty in 2005. “The University of Ottawa is outstanding at facilitating the function of Canada Research Chairs,” he adds. “We’re given release from other functions, less committee work, less teaching.”

He does teach – but in his own way. He considers his high-profile activism on human rights and health issues a form of teaching since it contributes to the public debate. “Universities are public resources,” he argues. “It’s a narrow and picayune view that teaching has to be done to students between certain ages sitting in neat little rows in a classroom.”

His research areas are both broad and interdisciplinary. He argues, for example, that human rights cannot be divorced from economic growth. Inequality within a country marginalizes whole swaths of a country’s population, he says, and in effect puts a brake on growth. He cites discrimination against women in India as an example: “I have considerable doubt that India can ever live up to the hype of how it is going to grow when artificially, because of social mores that are categorically foolish, one-half of the workforce isn’t respected for its work.”

Dr. Attaran’s current research projects involve both legal and health issues. One facet of his research examines how people who sell counterfeit medicine across international borders can be brought to justice. He is working on how to make it legally possible for a victim in, say, Nigeria, to sue a counterfeit medicine manufacturer in Myanmar.

And he continues to explore the treatment of Afghans arrested by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, by investigating what mechanisms are in place to ensure that detainees are treated fairly and by trying to obtain as much information on them as possible. He has used the Access to Information Act several times and acts as legal adviser to Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. He says it’s slow going right now “because the government is out to defeat justice in a case like this,” and adds that Access to Information has basically stopped working because the Department of National Defence “realizes that there’s some incriminating stuff there.” In his opinion, the government is abusing the act.

Bruce Feldthusen, now interim vice-rector for university relations at University of Ottawa, was dean of law when Dr. Attaran was hired. He says he was immediately impressed by the scholar’s range and by the force of his personality. In one week, he recalls, Dr. Attaran’s name appeared three times in the New York Times – one day about malaria, one day about aboriginal health care, and one day about the Afghan detainees.

“Anybody who can participate in the public forum on such a range of controversial issues is very impressive,” says Professor Feldthusen. “He is unusual in the breadth of his expertise. It’s very exhilarating to be in his company. I would almost call him fearless: I don’t think it’s easy to criticize the military.”

Dr. Attaran’s approach to difficult issues is to humanize them. For example, he says it’s one thing to talk about the scourge of malaria; it is quite another to argue – as he has – that every day, the number of children dying of malaria equals seven Boeing 747s going down. He consciously thinks up metaphors that engage the imagination without trivializing a serious issue.

He would like academics to do more of that kind of thinking. The Greeks got it right millennia ago, he says, when they pointed out there were only three ways to argue a point: ethos, pathos or logos. However, academic scholars limit themselves if they feel they must use only logos, or reason, to make their arguments.

“The mistake made on many, many global problems is that we leave pathos out of our toolkit. The mistake made in many of our academic publications is we leave ethos out.

“If academia ties two hands behind its back and the only respectable discourse is thought to be logos, is it so surprising that academics have been frustrated in penetrating some macro-level social problems?”

Yet Canadian academics, he says, are exceptionally well placed to engage difficult issues. That’s because they have a degree of freedom here that is unparalleled: “I would choose any day of the week to be on the faculty of the University of Ottawa instead of Harvard,” says Dr. Attaran, who used to teach there.

Why? Because, he says, in the U.S., academics are hampered by having to avoid criticizing university donors. He says that while at Harvard, he criticized the U.S. Agency for International Development, an independent agency that provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States. For doing that, he was demoted.

“What good is being at the world’s richest university if you don’t have the freedom to comment on the world’s most serious problem?” asks Dr. Attaran, who left the U.S. out of frustration with civil society. “I don’t have to please donors in this country.”

He criticizes Canadian universities for not being comfortable enough with public intellectualism. “Other countries have a tradition of universities playing a role in public debate,” he says. “Canada doesn’t have as much of a tradition of that as the U.S., Britain or France.”

To his mind, conditions in Canada are actually more conducive to public intellectualism than in the U.S., and Canadian universities should be encouraging it.

Canada’s greatest strengths are politeness, civility and commitment to the concept of community, he says. But these core values have a dark side: an unwillingness to rock the boat, as Maher Arar found out. And, he says, these core values may be what got Canada into trouble in Afghanistan.

“We subscribe to the thought that we’re members of the NATO community. We earnestly believe that, and our NATO allies have exploited our willingness and cooperation to stick us with the deadliest part of the country for the longest time any country has had it.” Canadians have to stop hiding behind their commitment to the sense of community and start engaging difficult questions about the country’s role in Afghanistan, he insists.

Despite his zeal, Dr. Attaran doesn’t see himself as an activist – he says an activist is someone who organizes marches. “My job is not just to point to a problem,” he says. “My job is also to say, here’s the policy weakness that’s caused an institution to fail. What could we do better? How could we do it better?”

And he intends to go on questioning, criticizing and recommending, and doing so very publicly.

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