04/30/2013 12:05 EDT | Updated 06/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Amnesty International: Turning Our Attention Closer To Home

n Canada and abroad - Amnesty International has been an eloquent and powerful voice when it comes to human rights. The Secretary General of the Canadian branch of AI since 2000 -- and a recent Queens Diamond Jubilee medal recipient -- Alex Neve has been a powerful advocate for human rights for decades.

In Canada and abroad - Amnesty International has been an eloquent and powerful voice when it comes to human rights. The Secretary General of the Canadian branch of AI since 2000 -- and a recent Queens Diamond Jubilee medal recipient -- Alex Neve has been a powerful advocate for human rights for decades.

An officer of the Order of Canada -- Neve's passion has taken him to places as diverse as Mexico, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Colombia. He reflects with me about the historic legacy of the Amnesty International movement, as well as some of its current efforts and finally gives advise to Canada's youth on how they can emulate such a powerful contribution to human rights -- here at home and abroad.

Amnesty International has had a long history fighting for human rights around the world. Tell me about its history?

Almost 52 years ago, one man, a lawyer in London, learned of the injustices suffered by two Portuguese students who, during a time of cruel military rule in that country, had been sent to prison simply because they dared to stand up in a Lisbon cantina and raise their glasses of wine in a toast to freedom. And that man, Peter Benenson, felt outrage.

And approximately 52 years later, Amnesty International is the result. Because he was convinced that he was not alone, would not be alone in feeling that sense of outrage. He knew that there would be not just a handful, but legions of people right around the world who would share that same sense of outrage. He set out to harness that collective sense of outrage in the face of injustice. He was sure it could be made to become a driving, irresistible force for change and for justice. Today, AI has become more than 3 million women, men and young people on every continent --- more than 80,000 across Canada.

What is the best way for Canadians to join in the AI movement?

There is no better way to empower our efforts than to take action; to speak up about human rights. And what better way to do that than to join in Amnesty International's 2001 Write for Rights campaign, which offers Canadians an opportunity to write letters and speak up about human rights concerns in countries all around the world, including in Canada. Several of those letter writing appeals involve cases in Africa --- Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. All of the details are available at

I know of many people who have benefited from the work of Amnesty abroad more specifically in Africa. Tell me about some of the work that AI in currently involved in?

Amnesty International has been working tirelessly for and with Africans throughout these past 50 years, to better promote and protect human rights across the continent. Concerns in African were among the very first cases taken up by Amnesty International back in 1961, such as the case of Angolan prisoner of conscience Agostino Neto, who would one day go on to become Angola's first President.

Today we are working to address serious human rights challenges in numerous African nations, including Cote d'Ivoire (where I spent several weeks in June, carrying out front line research into that country's ongoing human rights violations); but also such current hotspots, many of which are largely overlooked by the rest of the world as Sudan/South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We are very concerned about particular human rights challenges that arise in many African countries, including the rights of women, the role played by companies (we have highlighted the responsibility Shell has for serious human rights violations in the Niger Delta for example), the human rights dimension of poverty (so evident in the continent's many instances of forced evictions), and the need to more effectively tackle the impunity that has long shielded Africa's human rights violators from facing justice. Action is the only option!

Share with me some of the successes of AI's work?

For fifty years, AI activists have been speaking out. They have written letters, organized public events, met with their MP's, circulated petitions, set up Facebook pages, and so much more. And it makes a difference. We hear that all the time. We know that countless prisoners of conscience have been released, people spared from torture or executions, planned forced evictions called off -- because people around the world took the time to write a letter and demand that rights be protected.

Amnesty activism also leads to bigger changes -- new laws and institutions being set up to better protect human rights. Amnesty International activists were central to the campaign, for instance, that finally led governments to agree to create the International Criminal Court, which is now holding trials to ensure that some of the world's worst human rights violators are held accountable for their terrible crimes.

Tell me some of the efforts of AI that needs the urgent support of Canadians?

All of our work needs support from Canadians. Around the world, governments care about what Canada and Canadians have to say about human rights, and what they think about their countries. We certainly need to remind our own government about the importance of taking human rights seriously in our dealings with other countries. We have been worried that in recent years the government has given less and less attention and priority to concerns in Africa. We need to speak out and press for that to be turned around. African human rights concerns need to be a top concern, not secondary.

We also need to turn our attention closer to home, because we have many human rights shortcomings ourselves. The rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada are still subject to ongoing and very serious violations. We have major problems as well when it comes to the operations of some of our mining and other extractive companies in other parts of the world, certainly including Africa.

What is your advise for young Canadians who may want to get involved in human rights?

It is simple. Get involved. Amnesty International has a strong Youth and Student Program that gives a superb opportunity to learn more about human rights and provides ideal ways to join together with other young Canadians who share that same passion and desire for our shared global human rights struggle. Get involved. You have no idea where it may take you.

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