Protecting rights, fighting terrorism

December 4, 2017
Fionnuala Ni Aolain

“Never has the struggle for individual and collective rights been more important and the challenges we face so real and pressing,” says U of M Law School professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin.

In June, Ní Aoláin became the first woman ever appointed U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.

In her new position, Ní Aoláin is charged with identifying and promoting counterterrorism measures that respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, reporting to the Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly.

Ní Aoláin’s work is already underway. In October, she outlined her priorities to the U.N. General Assembly. At the top of her list is a review of the national security laws enacted worldwide since 9/11.

“There has been an explosion of legal rules and a normalizing of exceptional powers,” she says. “It’s important for the U.N. to examine their effect on legitimate dissent, assembly, and speech.” She also will apply a gender lens to counterterrorism policies affecting women around the globe.

Ní Aoláin grew up in Na Forbacha, in the west of Ireland.

“When I was growing up, human rights wasn’t a career you chose,” she says. “I was surrounded by conflict, so for me, human rights was simply doing the right thing. I wanted to understand what caused violence … and how people and countries might structurally address it.”

This past year, Ní Aoláin assumed leadership of the Law School’s Human Rights Center. She and colleagues also received a seed grant to establish the U of M Human Rights Laboratory, which will investigate and model ways that research can be used to reduce inequalities in human rights.

Ní Aoláin calls the lab “a new innovation in human rights that we believe can have a significant impact.”

In recognition of her achievements, Ní Aoláin was also recently named a University of Minnesota Regents Professor—the highest honor given to faculty by the University.