Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada

EVENT DATE: October 11, 2018
TOPIC: Standing up for Human Rights in a Turbulent and Polarized World

Alex Neve is a lawyer, with an LLB from Dalhousie University and a Master’s Degree in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex.  He has served as a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board, taught at Osgoode Hall Law School and the University of Ottawa, been affiliated with York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, and worked as a refugee lawyer in private practice and in a community legal aid clinic. 

Alex believes in a world in which the human rights of all people are protected.   He has been a member of Amnesty International since 1985 and has served as Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada’s English Branch since 2000.  In that role he has carried out numerous human rights research missions throughout Africa and Latin America, and closer to home to such locations as Grassy Narrows First Nation in NW Ontario and to Guantanamo Bay. 

Alex speaks to audiences across the country about human rights issues, appears regularly before parliamentary committees and UN bodies, and is a frequent commentator in the media.  He is on the Board of Directors of Partnership Africa Canada, the Canadian Centre for International Justice and the Centre for Law and Democracy. 

Alex has been named an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Trudeau Foundation Mentor. He is a recipient of a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He has received honorary Doctorate of Laws degrees from St. Thomas University, the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick.


Alex has consented to reproducing his presentation. The contents are displayed below: 

Let me begin with my own heartfelt and respectful acknowledgement that we gather today in traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory. I am grateful indeed to be here, particularly at a time of continuing challenge and obvious openings for advancing stronger protection of the rights of Indigenous peoples across Canada.  It is a true honour to be in this territory – and a strong reminder about some crucial fundamentals. How essential it is to deepen our commitment to rights.  How essential that we deepen our commitment to our shared nationwide responsibility to truly understand and move forward in a relationship of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in this country.

And if ever there was a time to draw strength and determination from those values of rights and reconciliation – this is that time.  For we come together in a time of very real human rights challenges; a time of roiling and blood-soaked turmoil and conflict; a time of hateful and demonizing division and bigotry.  The precious human rights promises enshrined at the UN almost 7 decades ago, when world leaders adopted and committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and launched the era of international human rights protection, are insidiously undermined and blatantly and even contemptuously disregarded.

But we do gather also a time also of action, resistance, solidarity and courage.  The global human rights movement is stronger than ever and does not relent, even in the face of unprecedented repression in almost every corner of the world.  People will not and do not stay silent when rights are on the line; and they have flooded into streets, parks, squares and the digital world to claim their rights and defend, passionately, the rights of others.

Yet. The Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar. South Sudan. Yemen. Libya. Northern Iraq. Afghanistan. The Central African Republic.  The wrenching human rights and humanitarian catastrophe that never ends in Syria.

Yet. The world looks away.  The world shrugs its shoulders.  The world tires. The world says it cares but then gets tied up in knots of inaction.  Perhaps the most disgraceful failure of our global community over these past seventy years has been the inability and unwillingness to end mass atrocities, to prevent another Holocaust. Very sadly, that global human rights commitment of ‘never again’ has instead, over the decades, very clearly been ‘again and again’.

Meanwhile, at a time when we need greater compassion, concern and principled leadership from governments, around the world – from the United States to Hungary, to the Philippines and far too many other countries – toxic bigotry and the politics of fear, suspicion and hate wins elections by unabashedly vilifying and targeting marginalized communities.  The Wall, The Razor Wire Fence, The MuslimBan, The War on Drugs.  All pretend to deliver safety, but through cruelty and violence that only breeds deeper insecurity and painful injustice.

And in Canada?

In many respects we offer hope.  Our government has taken strong stands at home and abroad for women’s human rights and gender equality, has become known for welcoming refugees and has made numerous grand gestures recognizing the urgency of advancing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

But, not always consistently; not always with follow through action to back up stirring words; and far too often with evidently wobbly conviction when powerful economic interests are at stake.  I’ll come back to some of those areas of disappointment.

These are tough times for human rights. Certainly not what we aspired to as the Universal Declaration readies to turn 70, in December.  With a platinum anniversary, a bleak global context and a worldwide chorus demanding change, there is no better time for a renewed global human rights push. 

There are many key imperatives to that push.  Let me share seven.

First, justice.

For decades one of the most notable shortcomings in international human rights protection was the glaring absurdity that the world’s worst criminals were the ones most likely to escape justice and accountability for their misdeeds.  The masterminds of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

All of that was supposed to change with the historic breakthrough of agreeing the Rome Statute in 1998, which subsequently led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court.  Twenty years later, 123 countries – close to 2/3 of the world’s states – are now parties to the Rome Statute.   Notably, 3 of the permanent members who wield such power within the United Nations Security Council – China, Russia and the United States – have made it clear they have no intention to join.  And in more recent years there has been growing push back from African governments who allege that the Court has disproportionately targeted them in the first round of charges and trials.

We have, however had 2 recent indications, from 2 opposite directions, that the ICC matters and needs greater, more forceful support from countries such as Canada.

In the face of an agonizing number of dead-ends in the effort to ensure justice and accountability for the military leaders and others in Myanmar who are responsible for the mass atrocities experienced by the Rohingya, the ICC suddenly offers a promising way ahead.

While Myanmar has not accepted the Court, neighbouring Bangladesh has.  And ICC judges have ruled that it would be possible to take up cases which have a cross border dimension – began with violence and persecution in Myanmar, leading to refugees fleeing to Bangladesh, the impact and effect of which continues after crossing the border.  At the same time a comprehensive new UN report, endorsed unanimously by the Canadian Parliament last month, now talks of the Rohingya Crisis as genocide.   All of this opens up remarkable possible avenues of justice for a community which has always been denied same.

At the same time, also last month, we had a broadside against the ICC from the Trump government, in the sputtering, flaming rhetoric of his national security advisor, the notorious John Bolton. 

Incensed that the court is investigating Israeli human rights violations because the Palestinian Authority has recognized the court, and is also potentially investigating American forces in Afghanistan, because the Afghan government has recognized the court – Bolton announced that the US stands ready to ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the US, freeze any personal funds they may have in the US, and even threatened to lay charges (of what he was not clear) against ICC prosecutors.

All of this – determined efforts by prosecutors, strong UN reports, and yes, also the push-back and criticism – are strong signs that this matters.  That it was never going to be smooth and easy, but international justice matters, so very much. Universalizing that dream, that imperative of international justice, must continue to be at the heart of our agenda.

Second, a word about global arms control.

One of the most obvious obstacles to preventing mass atrocities is the world’s unbridled arms trade.  That is why it matters so much that the UN adopted an Arms Trade Treaty in April 2013, bringing human rights rules to this deadly global commerce.  Just over five years later, a respectable but not overwhelming 97 countries are on board. When Brazil joined, last month, number 97, we reached the halfway point. Not bad. Once again, the same three Permanent members of the Security Council – China, Russia and the United States, all major arms dealers – are staying out.  Given that only ten years ago most observers felt that the idea of a global arms trade treaty was an unattainable illusion, we do have some momentum on our side.

Unfortunately Canada is not among those 97 countries already on board.  Not yet, but getting close.  The federal has introduced legislation that would pave the way for us join the ATT.  But Bill C47 is far from perfect.  Most notably, it would exempt from scrutiny any arms sales from Canada to the United States, which accounts for over half of the Canadian arms trade; trade to a nation that itself has no intention to join the treaty and a nation with a long and notorious record of transferring arms to countries with abysmal human rights records.

C-47 is not yet law.  While it has passed the House, it still has to be approved by the Senate.  So that is where our attention turns this fall. We want to ensure that when Canada joins the ATT we can hold our head up high, with pride, and know that we are doing all we can to be part of the solution to a world awash with weapons used to commit terrible human rights violations.

Meanwhile we do continue to have the very inconvenient matter of 742 armoured vehicles that Canada has approved for sale, by London-based General Dynamics, to Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia with its own abysmal human rights record, now made worse by the fact that they have been repeatedly implicated as being responsible for extensive war crimes in neighbouring Yemen, where they lead a coalition that has actively intervened in the fighting.

Signing international treaties is one thing.  Reforming our laws to join those treaties is one thing.  Making principled decisions to say no to arms deals that stand to cause immense suffering and abuse is what really matters in the end.

Three, protecting refugees.

The UNHCR estimates that 65 million people have been forced to flee their homes worldwide, with approximately 22.5 million refugees and 42.5 internally displaced persons. There is therefore much talk of a global refugee crisis. The numbers do certainly give a sense of crisis.  About 1 out of every 112 people in the world is now forcibly displaced from her or his home.

But the crisis is not the refugees.  The crisis is not the numbers.  The crisis, and it is one, lies entirely in the despicable measures being taken by governments in response; with much more focus on restrictions, barriers and punishment than on compassion, safety and protection.

One clear problem is that the global refugee system, intended to be grounded in international cooperation, is at its heart entirely unilateral.  Frontline states that are the ones to receive an influx of refugees are the ones expected to shoulder that responsibility. Bangladesh, here are the refugees from Myanmar that are your responsibility.  Turkey, 3 million Syrian refugees; Uganda, 1 million South Sudanese refugees have arrived.  Yours to bear.

States further afield may write the occasional cheque to help you out.  And they will certainly expend massive sums on keeping refugees away from their own frontiers, through border control, ocean patrols and other measures.

Meanwhile, Canada rests on the laurels of our remarkable 2016 effort to resettle 45,000 Syrian refugees, but with little follow through.  And as growing numbers of refugees feel fearful that they will not be safe in Donald Trump’s America, they are turning instead to Canada to make their claims for protection. But they face a 14 year old treaty, the STCA, that closes down border posts to refugees seeking to cross from the US to make refugee claims in Canada and are instead forced to cross irregularly into the country in order to make their claims.

That means making often perilous journeys and it means increasingly facing journalists, politicians, and a skeptical public, who refer to them as illegal migrants making illegal border crossings.  Their journeys may be desperate, risky and uncertain. But there is nothing illegal, in Canadian or international law, about crossing a border to make a refugee claim.

That is why Amnesty International has joined with the CCR, the CCC and a courageous woman from El Salvador and her 2 young children in a court challenge to the STCA.  At a time of fear and uncertainty for refugees in the United States, Canada needs to ensure that a commitment to human rights will prevail along the 49th parallel.

Number four, upholding the equality rights of women and girls.

By sheer numbers there is no denying that the deep inequality faced by women and girls is the most severe human rights challenge the world faces; and faces everywhere.  Despite commitments to gender equality and safeguards for upholding women’s human rights being long enshrined in numerous treaties, including one dealing specifically with discrimination against women, violence, inequality and marginalization continue to be the human rights reality for women and girls the world-over.  And while the scale and nature of the abuses differs considerably, there is no denying that this is indeed of concern everywhere, be it the Global North or Global South, within all religious, cultural and political traditions and in countries considered to be wealthy and those facing high levels of extreme poverty.

Global determination to promote gender equality and women’s human rights continues to grow. In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly created UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, a significant step within the UN system.  The UN’s important Sustainable Development Goals, or Agenda 2030, adopted in September, 2015 include a specific goal focused on gender equality which many states are prioritizing and mainstreaming in how they implement the SDG’s.  The inspiring effort to promote the right of girls to education championed by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala.

Yousafzai are attracting greater support. And movements are gaining such power, such as the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches and the incredible momentum of the #MeToo movement.

Not to forget, our own government is unabashedly feminist and brings that outlook to the world stage, including Canada’s FIAP, and last month, FM Freeland co-hosted the first ever Women Foreign Ministers Summit, bringing together 16 women FM’s from across the world.

Determination may be on the upswing, but there is still very far to go when it comes to changes and action that make a real difference.  Witness the colossal scale of rape in armed conflict, everywhere – Rohingya women, Colombian women, Syrian women, Congolese women.

Witness the agony of the Kavanaugh debate and vote in the United States.  Witness the extent to which we still flounder in the effort to understand, address and end the crisis of violence that Indigenous women and girls have endured for so very long in Canada.  A National Inquiry underway, though facing an uphill battle.  And at the same time, far too little action and change to push forward with the reforms we already know to be so badly needed. The Gladue appeal before the SCC this week is a stark reminder that violence against Indigenous women is still a raw and wrenching reality in Canada.

And of course, witness the perils faced by brave women’s rights activists, such as in Saudi Arabia where a ban on women driving has finally been lifted but the women who led the campaign against that very ban are locked up for their determination.

Hope. Crackdown. Courage. Change. A renewed global human rights agenda must have efforts to protect the rights of women and girls at its very heart.

Fifth, defending the defenders.

In so many ways, the greatest guarantor of human rights protection comes at the frontlines and the grassroots, right within our communities – when our sisters, brothers, neighbours, classmates, friends; when we ourselves mobilize, organize and speak out in defence of human rights.  When everyone, everywhere knows their rights and defends their rights.  But sadly, HRD’s around the world are in peril. The measures vary – legal harassment, public demonization, threats, physical attacks and killings – but the message is the same; standing up for human rights carries a price.

Some face greater risk than others, including those defending the rights of the LGBTI community, upholding the sexual and reproductive health rights of women and girls, and speaking up about human rights in the context of land and environmental struggles.

And it has become deeply personal for us as members and supporters of Amnesty International.  Last year the Turkish government locked up our two main leaders of Amnesty International in Turkey, the director, Idil Eser (who essentially does my job in Turkey) and the chair, Taner Kilic.  Locked up on absurd allegations of supporting terrorism, which are entirely about their human rights work.  Idil was released conditionally after 4 months. Her trial still slowly goes forward.  Taner was only freed, again conditionally on bail, in August, after well over a year behind bars – for believing in human rights.

Amnesty International has been taking on some of the world’s cruelest, brutal and vindictive governments for nearly 6 decades.  Never before have we experienced a direct attack like this.  It is a stark illustration of the increasing dangers of defending human rights.

We must, absolutely must, crack the wretched impunity that continues to shield those who kill, attack and threaten human rights defenders. And we must make it clear that people everywhere are watching and concerned. Attacking human rights defenders is attacking the very essence of what human rights protection is all about. That jeopardizes all of us.

Next, making the business case for human rights.

Human rights advocates are consistently told to wait and be patient when economic interests are on the line.  Doing business should take precedence, we are told, as it will eventually and inevitably lead to greater prosperity, stronger respect for the rule of law, more opportunities for education, training and employment and, therefore, ultimately, human rights will flourish.

But we know that is far too simple.  A country’s economy can expand considerably while human rights violations do not abate and may even worsen.  Consider China and Saudi Arabia as two glaring examples of economic boom and human rights bust.

Despite an explosion in company talk about human rights over the years, far too many businesses shirk their human rights responsibilities, and get away with it.   The growing number of reports and campaigns from Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, highlighting widespread human rights concerns in industry sectors such as gold, copper, palm oil, timber, cobalt, oil and gas, in countries around the world, makes that patently clear.

There is encouraging progress here in Canada. The government is setting up a new independent Ombudsperson to investigate complaints about human rights abuses associated with the overseas operations of Canadian mining, oil, gas and garment companies.

And the government has, for the first time, committed to taking human rights seriously as it negotiates a new free trade agreement, with the  Mercosur trading bloc in South America – having announced that assessments will be conducted looking at the deal’s impact on human rights, gender, Indigenous rights and labour.

That’s abroad.  What about within our own borders?  When economic interests collide with the rights of Indigenous peoples?  Consider BC. When pipelines are at stake?  Or when the massive, misguided, bloated Site C hydroelectric dam – which has been supported by Liberal, Conservative and NDP governments at provincial and federal level  – moves ahead despite adamant objection from the First Nations who will lose the last of their traditional territory.

We have much talk about turning a new page, forging a new relationship – embracing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; embracing the TRC Calls to Action. But when massive projects like Trans Mountain and Site C pay little or no regard for those values and obligations, the beautiful rhetoric is empty.

Finally, a word about the world of hate, polarization and contempt for human rights that I know is increasingly a preoccupation for all of us.  And this is not only about Donald Trump, though it is.   It is also about Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Maduro in Venezuela, Orban in Hungary and Putin in Russia.  It is every time a western European country goes to the polls. 

The hallmarks are similar across all of these situations.  An ugly, fear-based form of populism.  Taregting refugees and migrants.  Vilifying LGBTI communities.  Setting back women’s equality. Attacks against human rights activists, institutions and principles.

We must, in response, stand up, speak out, push back – be that in the streets, in the courts, on social media.  Challenge, resist, confront, overturn.

But there is something deeper at play as well, we have to change the channel.  Change the channel on division, on fear, on suspicion, on intolerance, on hate.  Anywhere and everywhere we see it, hear it, witness it.

Which is, in essence, the very heart of our global human rights system.  For at the end of the day, treaties, constitutions, laws, courts and tribunals aside, perhaps the most crucial and challenging imperative that must be addressed in the effort to revitalize human rights protection is the need to build empathy and understanding and foster a culture that celebrates diversity and aspires to tolerance and inclusion.    It is the flipside to these waves of division and hate that have certainly always existed but have become more global and mainstream than ever. 

This need for human rights empathy takes us back to powerful remarks delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the world’s first truly global human rights advocates, having played a key role in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN in 1948.

So let me end with her words, delivered at the UN six decades ago, in 1958, which still speak so meaningfully to us today:

“Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood she lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where she works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

How true.

The failings of the past seventy years of international human rights protection lie in a yawning gap between stirring promises captured in the UDHR and a legion of legal instruments on the one hand and the cold, hard reality on the other hand of states cavalierly ignoring and blatantly breaching those promises without consequence.  They lie as well in indifference and inaction. I’ve touched on some areas where indifference must give way to action:

–          Shoring up international justice.

–          Reining in the global arms trade.

–          Protecting refugees.

–          Fighting for gender equality.

–          Celebrating the amazing work of front line human rights defenders.

–          Holding business accountable for human rights.

–          And turning the channel on hate and division.

From the small places where we live our lives, to the large places of decision making and power in national capitals, corporate boardrooms and the corridors of the United Nations.

In all of those places, the dream of universal human rights protection can be, must be and, indeed, IS within reach.

Within YOUR reach.   Within OUR reach.

Together, we must and will reach out for that world – with greater determination, confidence and urgency – we will reach out today, this week and we will reach out far beyond.