Hillel Neuer addresses McGill 2018 Convocation after award of honorary doctorate

McGill University Convocation
Montreal, Quebec, June 5, 2018


Chancellor of McGill University, The Honourable Michael A. Meighen, QC:

“McGill is very honored today to celebrate the achievement of one of its own, Mr. Hillel Neuer. I invite Professor Antonia Maioni, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, to present our distinguished alumni, that he may have conferred upon him the highest recognition that it is within the power of this university to grant, and I ask Mr. Neuer to please stand and join me at center stage for the presentation of the award.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Prof. Antonia Maioni:

“Mr. Chancellor, born and raised in Montreal, Hillel Neuer holds a B.A. from Concordia University, a B.C.L. and LL.B. from our Faculty of Law, and an LL.M. in comparative constitutional law from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

An international lawyer and writer, he is the executive director of UN Watch, a human rights NGO that supports the just, and apolitical application of the values and principles of the United Nations Charter.
Prior to joining UN Watch, Hillel served as a law clerk for Justice Itzhak Zamir at the Supreme Court of Israel. It was while practicing commercial and civil rights litigation at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, that he first became known as an active human rights defender at the international level.
Described as someone who walks softly, but carries a big microphone, Mr. Neuer regularly testifies before the United Nations Human Rights Council, on behalf of victims in Darfur, China, Russia, and Venezuela, and the cause of peace in the Middle East.
He has been an innovator, creating global platforms for courageous dissidents and champions of human rights from around the world. As a founder and chair of the annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, he leads a cross-regional coalition of 25 non-governmental organizations, that over the last decade have placed an international spotlight on urgent human rights situations.
He has, in a word, been instrumental in giving a voice to the voiceless.
When the city of Chicago, Illinois, declared September 15, 2016 to be ‘Hillel Neuer Day’, the city council adopted a resolution that cited his role as ‘one of the world’s foremost human rights advocates.’ The council spoke of his contribution to ‘promote peace, justice, and human rights around the world,’ and described him as someone whose ‘hard work, sacrifice, and dedication serve as an example to all.’
Of his tireless, passionate quest to expose injustice, Hillel Neuer once said that certain regimes may not like what he does, but the human rights victims do. And this, to him, is what is most important.
Mr. Chancellor, I present to you Mr. Hillel Neuer, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.”


Hillel Neuer, Convocation Address:

Chancellor Meighen; Principal and Vice-Chancellor Fortier; Mr. Panda, Chair of the Board of Governors; proud parents and guests; and most of all, members of the graduating class of 2018:

The first time I graduated from McGill, I actually missed convocation, because I was away on exchange. But this is quite a way to make up for it.
To the graduates: Given that after all your labors, I am the last thing at McGill standing between you and your degrees, I promise to be brief.
Félicitations. You have worked so hard to reach this milestone. Your loved ones and the McGill community are proud of your accomplishments, and full of hope for what you will achieve next as you embark on your future path.
This morning I would like to share with you what McGill has meant to me and my work in human rights, and to tell you about brave individuals on the front lines of this struggle.
Let me begin by saying how profoundly grateful and touched I am to be accorded this great distinction from a university for which I have such respect and affection, and which has played a formative role in my life.
In conferring upon me this degree, McGill cited my work on behalf of dissidents and political prisoners. These people defy oppressive regimes to defend human liberty, democracy and the rule of law; and it is to these courageous men and women around the world that I dedicate this honor.
Since I was a child, I venerated McGill, not least because it was where my father had studied law. I had heard of his legendary professors, like F.R. Scott, the great Canadian constitutional scholar, social activist, and poet.
And so the day I received my own letter of admission to McGill law school is one I will always remember. I was home with my parents, and we drank a toast to celebrate. This morning, I’m fortunate once again to have my family here, together with childhood friends, at what for me is another special moment.
Fourteen years ago, when I arrived at the United Nations, I was fortunate to come bearing the human rights legacy of this university.
At McGill, I had the privilege to study and work with the iconic international human rights scholar-advocate of our time, Professor Irwin Cotler, who would go on to become Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. Prof. Cotler, I am honored that you are here today.
It was in your courses that I studied the work of FR Scott, who taught both you and your father. When from the 1930 to 50s, the premier of this province enacted laws and policies that targeted Communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, lawyers were afraid to represent the victims.
It was McGill professor FR Scott who had the moral courage to push back in the courts, and to successfully defend freedom of speech and opinion, freedom of religion, and the rule of law. “Civil liberties,” said Scott, “are always needed most by unpopular people.”
And I had the privilege to learn from professor John Humphrey, author of the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 70th anniversary of which we are celebrating this year. I am indebted to McGill for instructing me in this noble tradition.
Now, the mission of my organization, UN Watch, is to see that the United Nations lives up to the principles of its Charter. Yet when people see tyrannies winning election to UN human rights bodies, despite our best efforts to uphold the official criteria, I’m often asked if I feel discouraged.
The answer is, I don’t — because I believe it is essential to speak the truth. As it is written in the tractate Pirkei Avot: “On three things the world stands: on justice, on truth and on peace.”
But the other reason I don’t despair is because a large part of our work is interacting with brave and inspiring individuals, whose voices we bring before the United Nations and the world.
I am inspired by people like Dr. Yang Jianli. Born and raised in China, he holds a PhD in math from Berkeley, and another in political economy from Harvard. He could have led a quiet life as a successful academic. But Jianli chose to stand up for the freedom of his people.
Yesterday marked the 29th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, where up to 10,000 pro-democracy activists were killed. Jianli was in the U.S. at the time, but he immediately flew back to join the protesters. He witnessed soldiers shooting peaceful demonstrators, and tanks running people over. Jianli survived, but was arrested by China in 2002, and jailed for five years.
Speaking at our Geneva Summit for Human Rights, he explained how meaningful it was for people to support political prisoners: “I was kept in solitary confinement for nearly 15 months. You just collapse in that situation…. Until a day, when I received a bag of cards from all over the world; there were more than 200. Ever since that moment, I stood up; I stood up even in my prison cell. I saw the hope.”
I am inspired by people like Rosa Maria Paya. Her father, Oswaldo Payá, was Cuba’s leading dissident, advocating civil liberties and the release of political prisoners, and daring to organize 11,000 Cubans to sign a petition for democracy. He was sentenced to hard labor, and persecuted.
In 2012, Oswaldo Paya was killed, when his car was rammed from behind. Many believe the Cuban government was responsible. Rosa Maria was only 23 years old.
Yet instead of being intimidated, she has become a leading human rights activist like her father, demanding free elections, lobbying world leaders, and bearing witness. Defiantly, she goes back into Cuba, and this year presented the second annual Oswaldo Payá Prize, in her father’s house in Havana.
And I am inspired by people like Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of the leading democracy activists in Russia. He speaks before parliaments worldwide, and played a key role in spurring the U.S. Magnitzky Law, which sanctions Russian human rights violators.
As a result, Vladimir was twice poisoned in Moscow, in May 2015 and February 2017, leaving him in a coma and close to death. Despite the risks, he is undeterred. “I feel,” says Vladimir, “that those of us who are the public face of the opposition have a responsibility to continue our work.”
What can we learn from these and other brave dissidents?
First: Words and ideas matter. The reason unelected regimes target dissidents is because they fear their words. Ideas like freedom of speech, whether here on campus or elsewhere, must never be taken for granted.
Second: Those who take on challenges far greater than our own teach us to be determined. Never give up. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, ‘It can’t be done.’”
Third: In the words of Eli Wiesel: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
To the graduates, I wish you to go out and be successful. Take a stand. Change the world. Congratulations, and good luck.


UN Watch