UMN Prof. Ní Aoláin profiled for human rights work in Minneapolis Star Tribune

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University of Minnesota law professor takes rights battle to global stage
U professor takes her defense of civil liberties to global stage as United Nations adviser

By Maura Lerner
October 14, 2017 — 8:40pm
photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin is the University of Minnesota’s newest regents professor.

For a law professor, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has seen more than her share of violence.

She grew up in the shadow of one war zone and dodged land mines in another to bring war criminals to justice in the 1990s.

Since then, she has quietly built an international reputation as a human rights lawyer at the University of Minnesota, where she has taught for 13 years.

Now she's embarking on her highest profile assignment yet — as a special adviser to the United Nations.

On Wednesday, the 49-year-old native of Ireland (whose name is pronounced Fin-oola Nee Ay-loin) will address the U.N. General Assembly in New York about the need to protect human rights in the age of terrorism.

"In countering terrorism, human rights protections are not secondary, not irrelevant," she says in her prepared remarks. But they are, she maintains, in serious danger.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin is the University of Minnesota’s newest regents professor and will appear before the U.N. in New York this week.

Since becoming a U.N. special rapporteur this summer, she's already weighed in on a controversy over the treatment of human rights groups in Egypt and another on a new French security law that, she warns, will weaken the civil liberties of ordinary citizens.

In a sense, her job is to act as the U.N.'s watchdog, to call out what she sees as violations of basic human rights. It's a mandate that could take her almost anywhere in the world in the next three years, including its most volatile hot spots.

"Conflict follows me, or maybe I follow conflict," she told the Board of Regents in September, when she received the U's highest academic honor, the title of regents professor. Looking back, she mused, armed conflict has been "the motif of my career."

And not just as an outside observer.

"Fionnuala has never shied away from putting herself in conflict when she thought that may help," said her husband, Oren Gross, who is also a law professor at the U. "There are so many people who write about human rights from the comfort of the couch. And that's not her."

From Belfast to Bosnia

As a child in Ireland, Ní Aoláin had to cross military checkpoints to visit her grandmother across the border in Northern Ireland. She remembers hearing news of bombings and other atrocities on the radio, and even from a safe distance, the sectarian strife over British rule in the north seemed inescapable. At 18, she entered law school in Belfast, ground zero of the conflict, where military helicopters would fly overhead and city streets were barricaded.

The rifts in what she called this "deeply segregated and divided society" played out in her classroom, where Protestants clustered in the front rows and Catholics in the back. A few, like her, would sit in the middle, refusing to take sides.

As a first-year law student, she joined a human rights group that would shape not only her career, but also the peace process in Northern Ireland.

As part of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Ní Aoláin and a few dozen other activists worked behind the scenes to craft segments of the 1998 Good Friday peace accords. They cajoled the politicians and warring parties to include explicit protections for minorities, women and victims in a postwar bill of rights.

As her reputation grew, she caught the eye of a U.N. team preparing for a war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. They wanted to send a lawyer to Sarajevo in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, to monitor how local courts were handling suspected war criminals. But it was still a dangerous place, with curfews and land mines and bombed-out buildings. "My guess is, they thought, 'She won't be scared of going to a war zone because she grew up in a war zone,' " said Ní Aoláin.

They were right.

Redefining war crimes

During her year in Sarajevo, as she met the civilian victims of wartime horrors, she was struck by the accounts of women who had been held in "rape camps." "It was a widespread phenomenon, and not just on one side," she said.

Later, while teaching at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she pored through the testimonials from hundreds of Holocaust victims, many hinting at the same kind of sexual brutalization during World War II. At the time, she said, rape wasn't even considered a war crime.

"I started writing about what I saw as a gap in international criminal law," she said. "Saying rape is a war crime, and not simply some accidental thing that happens along the way, is important. It's important for victims."

Her articles, in a series of journals, were among the first to define sexual violence as a weapon of war — and help change the conversation. Today, she notes, rape is recognized as a war crime by all international courts.

She returned to Northern Ireland in 2003 to co-found the Transitional Justice Institute, a program at Ulster University that specializes in the study of peacemaking in violence-torn countries. At the time, she was also juggling an international commuter marriage — her husband, an Israeli, was teaching in Tel Aviv. In 2004, just as the couple were looking for a neutral place to live and raise a family, the University of Minnesota came calling.

"As a scholar, she's really quite remarkable," said David Weissbrodt, a law professor who helped recruit both Ní Aoláin and her husband to the U faculty. At the time, he noted, she was already a superstar in human rights circles, known for her "ability to bring action" as well as her academic achievements.

Since then, the honors have piled up — she has served on the European Court of Human Rights, won several prestigious fellowships and published eight books. Her new U.N. job will add to an already full plate: In addition to teaching and doing research at the U, she co-directs the institute she founded in Ulster. Now, though, she has an assistant in Geneva to help keep tabs on the global crises that demand her attention.

"We are thrilled that the U.N. gets the benefit from her service," said law school Dean Garry Jenkins. "We should all be grateful that there are people like Professor Ní Aoláin willing to put forth that effort and take that risk on our behalf."

To her, the battle for human rights is a lifelong struggle. "When we make gains, people will push back," she said. But that, she says, is exactly what makes it worthwhile. "You're part of something bigger."

Despite everything, she remains optimistic.

"I'm frequently reminded of that famous line from Anne Frank's diary, that she still believes in the goodness of people," said Gross, her husband. "I think in some sense Fionnuala is like that. She has seen horror. She really has seen horror. And she still comes back and believes in the best that humanity has to offer."

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