U Law Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has worked for peace, held war criminals accountable, and investigated rape as a tool of war. Now, with the U.N., she's protecting human rights in an era of counterterrorism.
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has spent her career rooting out the worst human rights abuses in some of the most forbidding places on Earth. Yet, here she was on an early winter morning, gracious and unflappable, holding a coffee to go and a small paper bag, the contents of which would have to serve as breakfast and lunch to accommodate her breakneck schedule. Nearly every surface in her cheerful office on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank was covered with tall piles of books and papers.
“You don’t end up doing this work without the support of your community, and that includes the institutions you work in,” says Ní Aoláin (pronounced Nee Ay-loin), ticking off specifics like a flexible teaching schedule, student travel support, and even a law library she says is better than Harvard’s. “I’ve been extremely fortunate.”
Her approachable demeanor belies her reputation as a fierce protector of global human rights. The U’s newest Regents Professor and holder of the Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on conflict resolution and gender-based violence in post-conflict states. And she’s just added what is perhaps the most important—and prestigious—job to her long résumé.
Last summer, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed Ní Aoláin as a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, the first woman ever to hold that position. The 50-year-old, Dublin-born Ní Aoláin will spend her three-year term as a human rights watchdog, crisscrossing the globe (often taking her U law students with her) to report on alleged violations of human rights committed in the name of counterterrorism. “Dignity is not a negotiable value no matter what the challenges you face are,” she says.
Since becoming special rapporteur, she has observed the pretrial hearings of Guantanamo Bay detainees, intervened in Egypt on behalf of human rights organizations, and spoken out against a controversial anti-terror bill in France that limits judicial powers. In the post-9/11 world, human rights, already tenuous in some places, have been further suppressed in the name of fighting terrorism. Ní Aoláin’s mandate is to hold that line.
“She is a remarkable force of nature,” says Rory O’Connell, director of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University, which Ní Aoláin cofounded in 2003 and where she is law professor and associate director. “You might see serenity there, and gentleness. But there’s also a clear strategic vision, the ability to analyze complex situations and see what needs to be done, and a determination to carry it through.”
Ní Aoláin developed her interest in conflict resolution early. She and her five siblings grew up in Gaelicspeaking western Ireland during the sectarian violence known as the “troubles.” At Queen’s University Law School in Belfast, she came to understand the realities of a community scarred by 30 years of violence and utterly segregated by religious affiliation. She refused to pick a side. In fact, even today she prefers not to say if she was raised Protestant or Catholic. Would a Jewish person have had an easier time navigating the divide? “Well if you answer in Belfast, they’d say are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew? The question is irrelevant. It’s which side are you on?”
In Belfast, she joined other activists to make sure the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement would include human rights protections. Later, she went to war-torn Sarajevo on behalf of the U.N.’s international criminal court, where she used her legal expertise to hold Bosnian war criminals accountable.
Belfast and Sarajevo, two cities associated with the threat of violence. Was she ever afraid? “I think everyone’s under threat,” she says with typical understatement. “The question is how do people address their lived lives in the context of the threat? You can be defined by the conflict or you can be defined by the thing you do to break down differences.”
In Sarajevo, she was shaken to learn of the mass rape that had been perpetrated during the war, a “personal trigger” that solidified her interest in gender violence. A couple of years later, while teaching at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she began a major project on sexual violence during the Holocaust, which involved reading hundreds of testimonies from women survivors. In 2003, recognizing her expertise, the U.N. called on her a second time, naming her a Special Expert on promoting gender equality in times of conflict and peacemaking.
The following year, Ní Aoláin and her husband, Israeliborn law professor Oren Gross, were recruited to the U, a development she calls a “blessing”—not only because it allows the couple, who have three teenaged children, the luxury of living and working in the same city, but because the U has been so accommodating to her travel-heavy schedule and multiple affiliations. “I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t have institutional support,” she says.
“I also think there’s a set of skills that I’ve had as a woman who’s come through these experiences that I think serves me well,” she says. “One is I’m really resilient. The second is that you understand that you have to work twice as hard as any man does to get where you are. I don’t know a single woman in my role who isn’t exceptionally hardworking, who isn’t always overprepared for every meeting.”
The admiration is mutual. “The work she’s done has been so influential and high profile for this field, and her U.N. role now makes her even more visible,” says Amanda Lyons, executive director of the U law school’s Human Rights Center, where Ní Aoláin is faculty director. “For the University, it’s huge.”
It’s not an easy time to be a human rights warrior. In late December, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein—Ní Aoláin’s boss—announced he would not seek a second term, citing the “appalling” climate for human rights advocacy. Al-Hussein, a Jordanian, said the ongoing global retreat from human rights would make his job impossible. Ní Aoláin goes one further. She says the withdrawal from those historic priorities is the greatest threat to human rights today. “The collapse of the post-WWII legal order, which was designed to foster collaboration among states and to prevent war, is being aided and abetted by one of its chief architects: the USA.”
Despite that ominous judgment, Ní Aoláin remains upbeat. She is driven by her abiding love for the work. “I’m a very balanced, happy person, and given the work I do, that’s not a given. I’m not a tormented soul. I feel like you are really lucky if you end up being part of the struggle that is one you believe in.”
For those of a more pessimistic bent, who perhaps feel paralyzed or overwhelmed, Ní Aoláin suggests starting local. “I think people have to stop reading the front page of the newspaper and getting depressed. Go out and do something, anything!” she says with a laugh. “There are amazing organizations in Minnesota. What could feel better than connecting with another human being who is feeling challenged? All of these things contribute to the global good.”
She admits the fight for human rights can seem never ending. In December, 24 years after its founding, the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had its official closing ceremony. The war crimes court indicted 161 people, heard from nearly 5,000 witnesses, and paved the way for similar courts in places like Rwanda and Cambodia. But the ceremony was bittersweet, because new challenges keep coming.
“The issues I worked on in my 20s are still issues I’m working on today and will continue to work on,” Ní Aoláin says. “Rights are struggles. It’s not like we sit on our laurels and say, ‘Oh, we’re done now.’ Anybody who thinks that needs to go home. This is the long game.”
Laura Silver is a Twin Cities-based writer and editor.