Who The Folk?! Fionnuala Ni Aolain

Fionnuala Ni Aolain’s journey to Minnesota was a long and winding one. But journey around the world seemingly never stops; the University of Minnesota Law School professor and international law expert is also a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights. Ni Aolain (pronounced Fin-oola Nee Ay-loin) talks about her journey to the U.S., to Judaism, and significant issues facing the global community in this week’s Who The Folk?!

You are Irish

I am 100 percent. Irish Irish. Not Irish-American.

From Ireland or Northern Ireland?

I was born in the south but spent most of my life in the North, in Belfast. I was born in Dublin and went to Belfast in my late teens and then went to law school, lived, and practiced in Belfast before I went to grad school in the U.S.

What was it that drew you to the north?

My family moved to the west of Ireland – the next stop was probably Boston. My mother is from Northern Ireland. I went to law school there partly because it was a very good law school. We go as undergrads. Europeans go straight to law school or medical school; you have to know what you want to do when you’re more or less 16. There was a particular focus, partly because of the conflict, on international law and human rights.

Did you know then how significant the field would be now?

If you grow up in a conflicted society where there is violence from both state and non-state actors, serious issues of human rights violations for Americans it’s fairly new, but for people who grew up in Ireland 20 or 30 years ago, it’s not. I now live in the U.S. where people are now more conscious of these issues, but when I moved here in the 1990s, Americans, it wouldn’t affect their lives. For me, not much has changed. The work I did 30 years ago in Belfast is similar to the work I do now.

Are there parallels to Israel and the conflict there?

South Africa, Israel/Palestine and Ireland/UK were considered the three intractable conflicts. Many saw as having some similarities: Majorities, minorities; who’s a majority and who’s a minority depends on your geography. Issues of identity and religion. There certainly is overlap. I’ve lived in both places and there are distinctions. I lived in Jerusalem for eight years. There are similarities. We made some major compromises to stop the violence, and Israel/Palestine has not. That’s the big difference.

Does Ireland still feel fraught with tension?

Conflicted societies have intergenerational trauma. There are issues of legacy around accountability. Reservoirs or hurt and harm amongst communities. It doesn’t matter what conflict zone you go to. There are people who think peacemaking means everyone waking up the next day feeling good; they have never lived in a conflicted society. I think there’s a naïve assumption about the costs of peace. But if you ask people if it’s worth it, of course they’ll say it’s worth it because they’ve got to the point where they recognize the value of making peace is greater than the value of making war.

There has to be a willingness from both sides to scale back.

Yes, I think that’s right. Compromise is huge. Some people have to make bigger compromises than others. In our case, we had a minority population – the Catholic population – that had experienced 30 years of systemic discrimination in housing, education, gerrymandering of the political system, political violence from the state, and that produced a group of non-state actors that were deeply violent and targeted civilians and state actors. Ultimately, the state had to make huge compromises. It was a dysfunctional state and treated its minority badly. Some compromises were bigger than others.

When did you live in Israel?

I came to the U.S. to do post-doc work at Harvard, and got a Master’s degree at Columbia and taught at Columbia Law School. Then I had a faculty position at Hebrew University. I had met my husband at Harvard when we were both grad students. He was teaching at Tel Aviv.

When people think of laws, they think local. Is what you taught at Hebrew U. the same as you teach here?

There are two branches of international law: Public and private. Private is if Medtronic wants to sell products to Japan. That requires an international contract, it requires the sale of goods that is regulated not by U.S. law but international treaty. If the goods go by airplane, some is regulated by U.S. law but others by international aviation rules. That’s a big body of the law I would teach. Then you have the Law of the Sea, which is another huge area. You want to send something overseas, that’s not regulated by the U.S. Postal Service, it’s regulated by international rules that are negotiated between states. People don’t fully understand how integral international law is; that’s thousands of years old. The area I specialize in public international law, which is the law that regulates the U.N., regional organizations like the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States. It regulates international criminal law. One of the challenges of teaching here versus elsewhere is that the U.S. has always had a more isolationist position on international law than other countries. The difference for example of when I taught in Europe, international law is mandatory. For many states, they are inter-related. I teach some of the same law, but some would be more practical. For the students who do trade, yes, if they work in a big firm, they’ll do it. Public international law is smaller. Refugee and asylum law is still a big area of practice in the Twin Cities because we have a large refugee community. We have a whole bunch of international NGOs like the Center for Victims of Torture which is based here. Some of my students will go. We have the Advocates for Human Rights that works on issues of human rights protections abroad. Many will go overseas to the ICRC in Geneva, others to the U.N. They’ll be in Washington or New York if they stay in the U.S.

Do you have a lot of non-American students?

Increasingly we’re seeing foreign students that don’t intend to practice in the U.S., but they are from countries that have trading relations and they see a career advantage of being a U.S.-trained lawyer. One of our challenges now is that with new restrictions on entry to the U.S., that may significantly impact our ability to attract students. A challenge with higher education, at the U included, is that we are dependent on foreign students to enable us to be financially solvent.

In addition to teaching at the U, you have a special appointment at the U.N.; how did that come about?

Generally, people who are appointed to these positions have a history of working for the U.N. I spent a year in the 1990s in Bosnia working for the war crimes prosecutor. In general, you build up a set of practices and expertise. My area of research and writing is conflict, post-conflict, terrorism and political violence. That’s been the area I’ve written in for 30 years. You get asked because you have a certain academic expertise to start with. I have done various reports and expert work for the U.N. system. In the context of the special rapporteur positions, you apply but it is a political process. Generally, you have to be supported by states. I was encouraged to apply by a number of states. There’s a vetting process which would be similar to a judicial process. You go through a hearing before a number of ambassadors. There were 38 applicants and five were short-listed. The Human Rights Council does the selection and interviewing. I was appointed in late June. For these appointments, states will get the views of other states who aren’t on the body. States lobby. I’m an Irish special rapporteur. I travel on my Irish passport, but I have a U.N. diplomatic passport as well.

Are you a U.S. citizen?

I became a U.S. citizen before the last election so I could vote. It didn’t help. I have non-citizen children – my children were born in Ireland. We’re all aware of pending adjustments. I became concerned about my children. Green-card holders were initially included in the ban. I’m adjusting the status of my children at the moment. My husband (Oren Gross) is Israeli.

The rare Israeli-Irish children.

I haven’t met many. They describe themselves as Irish Jews. Not that there are that many of them either. There’s a smallish community in Dublin. There is a community in Belfast where my boys had their brit melah. When the conflict happened, many Jews left for England – Manchester or London. There was a joke in Belfast: people will always try to figure out if you’re Catholic or Protestant. If you say you’re a Jew, they’ll ask “but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” because there is no third category. It’s an old but lovely community. One of the reasons we came back to the U.S. is that their capacity to live a Jewish life would be limited.

Why Minnesota?

The U hired us both. My husband is observant. We keep kosher at home, and even in Belfast, you have to order kosher meat from London and it comes to the synagogue and it gets divided. It wasn’t that we had never been to the Midwest, but it was the only one that hired us both. We love the law school and are very happy.

What does your husband teach?

We’re both international lawyers; he teaches more on the trade side and also writes in the area of national security and Jewish ethics.

How do you balance your U.N. post with teaching and family?

I have a full load this year. Last year when I applied, you never know if you’ll get. My dean is giving me a reduced load next year. The traveling is the most challenging parts. All of the U.N. counterterrorism architecture sits in New York and I sit on most of the committees that regulate global-counterterrorism. I’m in New York every other week at least for a day or two. I try to go out late, pack in meetings. I manage it by being very efficient. It’s easier with kids who are teenagers. It’s hard to do it because there are very gendered expectations about who does what. There are very few women in my position in the U.N. system.

I have a really busy schedule. This fall has been basically traveling to New York and Geneva. When I’ve had to go to Geneva it’s been for a week. It’s hard for my teaching; I feel really strongly connected to my students. As special rapporteur, I do two country visits. I will meet with and review their counterterrorism architecture and look at how it is or isn’t compliant with their international human rights obligations. Those visits are long – 8 to 10 days plus travel. I’ll visit France and Belgium in May and hope to visit Qatar in the fall.

France and Belgium have had major terrorist attacks and both have responded in different ways. Terrorism is a serious and profound problem in our society, but we have to understand what’s creating it. I lived in a place that was deeply violent for much of my adult life, and counterterrorism measures alone will not stop your violence problem. Social science data is unanimous on that. When the state takes measures that are likely to exacerbate the underlying conditions that produce the violence, the state isn’t doing itself a favor.

What’s been the most challenging country you’ve had to work in?

Honestly, Palestine. I’ve spent extensive periods of time in Ramallah. Ramallah is a tiny city that’s enclaved. Conducting research is extremely difficult, not just because of the constraints on the Palestinian population but the violence from settlers and the vulnerability of non-state actors who are unchecked by the state. I’ve done fieldwork in different places and that is the most challenging as an academic researcher. Because the degree of constraint and oppression on the population is extreme, but then you go back to Tel Aviv and sit on the beach and no one cares. It’s the cognitive dissonance between life as it’s lived in the controlling territory and the territory that lives under occupation. I have many close friends in east Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The other is that I was able to get security clearance to go to Guantanamo. That is also extremely oppressive. There the challenge is that it’s a U.S. territory. I went in to observe the 9/11 trials. I’ve written a book on military commissions and I’m writing a book on exceptional trials. I would say that again it’s a question of the cognitive dissonance. You can go to a drive-thru McDonald’s, there’s a Subway, there’s an Irish pub, there’s a tiki bar. There are structures of “American normality,” and then you have this prison complex and detainees. These trials are profoundly, legally problematic, both in terms of the legality of the trials, the ways in which detainees are treated and the way they are treated is ongoing torture. The conditions in which they continue to be held. It’s a very complicated place to be. You have normality with abnormality.

I lived in Northern Ireland for 20 years of conflict. It’s not like I’m easily shocked. I have a high degree of tolerance for what you might think of as exceptional. The places you find most difficult are the places where side-by-side you have the pretense of normality. In Bosnia, it was exceptionally difficult; there were curfews, you had to wear a flak jacket, there was 24-hour guard. But it was uniformly bad. There was no normality. There was no pretense. The things that jar me the most are the things that are side by side.

What do you think about the president’s decision on Jerusalem?

With my work on counter-terrorism, this decision is an enablement to violent extremism. It will encourage, incite and support those people who believe that extreme violence is justified. It adds fuel to the fire of extremist ideologies. Does it make the U.S. safe? Absolutely not. It makes the U.S. and U.S. citizens – Jews and non-Jews – less safe throughout the world. It is a shot in the arm of recruitment. The U.S. finds itself with its closest allies denouncing them. Both shortsighted and potentially catastrophic. The short term win will have a long term reach. And peacemaking is really hard. When you have deeply symbolic things that are equally meaningful to both sides, the risk you run when you don’t treat with great care and caution, you undermine the possibility of having a meaningful peace agreement in the long run.

Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!