A child’s vision of their parents as larger-than-life and super-hero-like beings often fades, at least in part, as they grow-up. Alex Neve lost his father before he got the chance to see him as anything less than that. Memories of his father, a lawyer, sitting in his big chair with a dictaphone machine and the mystery that accompanied his work, became nostalgia. When Alex decided to pursue law himself, he knew very little about what being a lawyer actually entailed. It was the mystique of his father’s career that pulled him towards it.
Now an international human rights professor and international affairs senior fellow, it is hard to imagine Alex lacking the worldly knowledge that guides his work. But in the late 70s, Google searching “lawyer jobs'' was not an option and Alex’s exposure to the profession (and the world in general) was limited.
Living in a small town in New Brunswick during that time, Alex had even less of an understanding of the “whos”, “whats”, “wheres” and “hows” of lawyering. All of that changed when he headed to Halifax where he first completed an undergraduate degree in commerce and then continued on to law school at Dalhousie University. He joined the Halifax Chapter of Amnesty International during his studies and immersed himself in a broad range of advocacy efforts ranging from human rights in Central America to anti-apartheid activism and nuclear disarmament. Alex began to learn the power that law had to impact social change and he kept this knowledge close to heart through law school and along the path that he still follows today, over 30 years later.
Alex’s early days of involvement with Amnesty International taught him things that law school could not. At his first meeting with the organization, Alex’s eyes were opened to the ugly, messy world we live in, full of problems that seemed impossible to solve. The silver lining? Every supportive voice and step forward matters.
Becoming a human rights lawyer, Alex knew that even the smallest step could make a difference.
International human rights was an emerging area of law at the time. In fact, during his law degree there were no courses in international human rights law. His journey was not a straight line and impossible to foreshadow, but looking back Alex wouldn’t change a thing.
At the beginning of his career as a human rights lawyer, Alex took a more familiar route and practiced refugee law. The area interested him, so he went on to complete an LLM in International Human Rights Law at the University of Essex. With an insatiable passion for advocating for international human rights, Alex eventually found his way back to Amnesty International where he held a number of roles, interspersed with other positions with other organizations. He then became Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada in 2000, continuing until 2020.
As the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, Alex led and participated in over 40 human rights research, advocacy, and campaigning delegations to more than 20 countries. His work covered a range of civil, political, economic, and social rights, and focused on themes such as refugee protection, armed conflict, the rights of Indigenous peoples, women’s human rights and gender equality, corporate accountability, trade policy, national security, racism and discrimination, torture, the death penalty, free expression, consular protection, adequate housing, the multilateral human rights system, the global climate crisis, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
While international human rights law is not a traditional area of law, there is not a day as a civil society activist where Alex is not in some way lawyering. Some days, his work looks more conventional by attending court proceedings as an intervener. While other days, he may appear in front of parliamentary committees, take domestic and international issues to the United Nations, and conduct frontline human rights research.
While optimistically advocating for a better world, Alex has also felt despair throughout his career.
Knowing how difficult human rights work could be, Alex set boundaries early in his career. Since the start, he has made time to recharge, and prioritized focusing on light through the darkness. What has helped him the most is the solidarity and community that surrounds him in his work. Activist spaces are also community spaces where there is meaningful intention to collaborate. If he’s having a hard day, Alex has a community to lean on. The next day, it may be his turn to carry the emotional load and he does so keenly.
Although Alex uses outrage as fuel to make change, he tries to stay in a sweet spot where he can express his discontentment without letting his feelings take over. While triumphs take time, he finds something every single day that pushes him forward even if he has had to take 100 steps back.
Alex has had the fortune to meet and work closely with inspiring frontline activists that motivate him to “keep the wind in his sails”. The solidarity he experiences in activist circles keeps him whole and fuels his confidence that the world can and will overcome challenges.
“If they don’t lose hope, how can I?”
There is no perfect recipe for preserving your well-being while working in human rights. Alex’s family was certainly integral to him creating healthy boundaries, and raising his three kids brought new perspectives and kept him humble throughout his work. Alex jokes that he would much rather negotiate with war lords than teenagers.
Throughout his journey in law, Alex is grateful and inspired by the world of pro bono lawyering. While there is a public perception that lawyers are greedy and selfish, in Alex’s experience, there is an immense amount of goodwill and noble hearts in the profession. As lawyers, we can forget that we have the ability to contribute needed volunteer work that most others cannot. Most volunteers can serve meals at homeless shelters, but lawyers can go to the Supreme Court of Canada and support frontline organizations by making arguments towards justice.
“We will ultimately prevail when all lawyers take a human rights approach to their work.”
Alex urges lawyers to add an element of human rights law to their practice, whatever that might be. Whether you’re a tax lawyer, family lawyer or even corporate counsel for an oil company, human rights law is relevant to you, your clients and outside organizations who need your help.
Today, you will find Alex teaching as an international human rights professor at the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University, and serving as a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs as well as a Fellow with the Atlantic Human Rights Centre at St. Thomas University. He is also busy serving as a Commissioner with the Ottawa People’s Commission on the Convoy Occupation.