International human rights lawyer Alex Neve (LLB ’87) has seen his fair share of triumphs and atrocities over the years. But even in the darkest moments, and there have been many of late, he has never lost his abiding optimism that progress is not only possible, it is inevitable.
“Maybe it’s because I have been involved in the struggle for a few decades, but I have a firm belief that the people will prevail,” he says. “When we come together, there is incredible potential for change. If we can hold on to the many times a bad government has fallen, a human rights treaty has been adopted, or a wrongfully imprisoned individual has been freed, we can find the energy and determination to take on the very real struggles we have ahead of us.”
Neve’s efforts to advance human rights at home and around the world have been recognized with several prestigious honours, including the Order of Canada, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and now the Schulich School of Law’s 2022 Weldon Award for Unselfish Public Service. Named for Richard Chapman Weldon, the founding dean of the law school, the award is bestowed upon alumni who uphold its namesake’s legacy of unselfish public service through their contributions to the community and the legal profession.
“Alex’s career is, in my view, the definition of unselfish public service,” says Darrell Dexter (LLB ’87), who served as premier of Nova Scotia from 2009 until 2013. “He has worked unceasingly throughout his career on behalf of refugees and others who suffered from forms of oppression and violations of human rights in this country and internationally.”
That desire to address oppression first manifested at law school, where Neve joined campus protests involving apartheid, nuclear disarmament, and U.S. military activity in Central America. He drew on it as a young lawyer, at first in the service of union-side labour law in Halifax before transitioning to his own refugee law practice in Ontario. But Neve found a significant outlet following his first Amnesty International chapter meeting at Dalhousie in his first year of law school. That meeting not only galvanized his approach to activism and advocacy but also laid the foundation for a volunteer relationship that culminated in Neve becoming secretary general of Amnesty International Canada (AIC) in 2000.
Humbling and eye-opening
Over the next 20 years, Neve served as AIC’s chief organizational representative, senior advocate and spokesperson with regard to Canadian and international human rights issues. During that time, he led or participated in over 40 human rights research and advocacy delegations and trial observations in 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. He directed the organization’s legal program, intervening in and launching more than 50 cases with pro bono legal teams at the Supreme Court of Canada, the Supreme Court of the United States, federal court, provincial courts, tribunals, public inquiries and UN bodies. And Neve played a key role in securing the repatriation of several Canadian citizens who had been imprisoned and tortured in the wake of 9/11, including Omar Khadr, who had been held at Guantánamo Bay, and Maher Arar, who had been held in Syria.
“To have been involved in those campaigns and to stand alongside those men, their families, and other activists to make that happen was one of the most humbling, eye-opening, and exhilarating moments I’ve had in human rights work,” says Neve, who also supported negotiations for an apology and compensation for these men from the Canadian government.
In addition to those cases, Neve participated in Amnesty International’s effort to convince governments to establish the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute cases involving human rights abuse. He worked to secure an agreement from the United Nations Security Council to send a peacekeeping force to East Chad to protect thousands of local civilians, as well as Darfur refugees who were being attacked and raped after escaping human rights violations in Sudan. And he worked alongside Indigenous women lawyers who produced Amnesty International’s groundbreaking report, Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada. It is that mix of systematic changes and individual cases that keeps Neve engaged in his work.
“Human rights work is strongest when we tackle both sides,” he says. “We need to stand up in instances when injustices are happening to individuals. But a world in which injustices happen is surely not the world we want. What we want to be doing is creating a better world where unjust imprisonment, torture, cruel deportations and the death penalty aren't happening in the first place.”
'Do something about it'
Neve’s efforts are, in large part, inspired by his parents. His father, a Calgary-based lawyer who passed when Neve was eight, approached his work with integrity and empathy for his clients. His mother, a dietician, motivated him through her own efforts to advocate for accessible daycare in Alberta in the 1970s. “I remember her coming home after long days of working in a hospital kitchen, totally exhausted, but gathering her pamphlets and heading out to rallies or organizing meetings,” he says. “I understood from her that if you feel something’s wrong, do something about it. Don’t stay silent or inactive.”
Law became a way for Neve to do something and law school became the means to gain the necessary skills and knowledge to have an impact, both through his studies and the politically and socially engaged community he encountered at the university.
“I had wonderful professors who were willing to help me find ways to pursue my passion through my courses,” Neve says. “I did papers on international human rights law for courses on poverty and the law and women and the law. I did an independent research paper with Wayne MacKay on torture and international human rights law. That is where it all began, and I never looked back.”
Audrey Macklin has witnessed Neve’s journey first-hand. A professor of law at the University of Toronto, she met him when he was employed at the Centre for Refugees at York University in the 1990s and then worked with him on Khadr’s case. “One of the many admirable features of Alex’s professional trajectory is that he has moved effortlessly between the domestic and the international, from policy to front-line work at a shelter, and from legal representation to legal education, adjudication and advocacy,” Macklin says. “His work in each sphere has been linked by a common thread of deep commitment to the advancement of human rights, dignity, and justice.”
Centering human rights
Being recognized with the Weldon Award has considerable emotional resonance for Neve. “Given that the word unselfish is in the title, it is quite special,” he explains. “As lawyers we have an important role to play in advancing human rights protection and in addressing violations of those rights. It must be at the heart of what we do, and this is a validation of how crucial the human rights struggle is to any legal career.”
Although Neve stepped down from his duties at AIC in 2020, he continues to make progress in creating a better world. He is imparting the skills and knowledge necessary to take on the fight to a new generation of international human rights lawyers through a course he developed and is delivering at the Schulich School of Law. He also created a website through which he continues to advance human rights. And he is exploring ways — research projects, advocacy, writing — to compel Canada to consistently meet the human rights standards it espouses on the international stage.
“My ultimate goal is to live in a country, but also in a world, where human rights are actually at the centre of everything,” he says. “Those rights must be our starting point for setting laws, determining priorities, guiding our commercial dealings; everything. In other words, I want to see human rights embraced as the foundation for building sustainable, just societies.”
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