A hub for human rights: University of Minnesota stands out as a global leader in human rights law

George Floyd’s death this spring in Minneapolis sparked civil disobedience in dozens of cities across the nation, with activists protesting police brutality and racial inequality. The tragic death and the resulting riots placed Minneapolis at the center of the national conversation on racial justice. 

“There is a unique opportunity to engage in a city that is seeking to reconstruct its relationship with race, institutional racism and its relationship between the police and the local community,” said Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a law professor at University of Minnesota, who oversees the school’s Human Rights Center. 

While Minneapolis may be a new focal point for civil rights, it has long been a hub for human rights organizations, and University of Minnesota Law School is a large part of that. 

Its Human Rights Center, founded in 1988, was one of the first law school-based human rights centers in the U.S. It’s part of the university’s Human Rights Lab, which is an interdisciplinary partnership with the College of Liberal Arts. The lab’s purpose is to propose solutions to critical challenges in human rights. 

That helped the law school earn an A+ for human rights from preLaw magazine. It is one of the top programs in that field in the nation. 

“We have a high concentration of faculty who work in international law and human rights —faculty who are world class with a global reputation,” Ní Aoláin said.

Ní Aoláin is one of those faculty members. She grew up in Belfast, Ireland, and is a professor at Queens University Belfast in addition to teaching at University of Minnesota. She teaches in the fields of international law, human rights and national security, and her first book focused on the use of force by state agents during the conflict in Northern Ireland. 

She is also the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. In this capacity, she conducts fact-finding missions to investigate allegations of high rights violations. Law students have the opportunity to work with her, researching, attending meetings and even traveling. 

“Human rights is really painful,” she said. “This is not an easy body of work. But it is a unique opportunity to be engaged locally and internationally.”

Minnesota Law students have the opportunity to be involved with the Human Rights Center during their first year, which is not the case at many schools. First-year students can take a course in international law, and they have the opportunity to do asylum work during winter break. The school also helps them land summer internships in the field and provides mentors. 

Ní Aoláin said landing jobs in human rights is usually a result of networking. The law school funds internships to help students get experience and make those important networking connections. It has alumni in human rights organizations throughout the world. 

The school’s Human Rights Lab also gives students a chance to work alongside professors in other disciplines to come up with solutions that involve law but are not law-led. 

“This is a really challenging time for human rights, with the rise of authoritarianism and populism,” Ní Aoláin said. “This is a period of massive strain on global commitments to human rights.”

But, she said, there is lots of hope.

“This generation of new students is so motivated and see themselves as fixers and doers,” she said. “It is a hard time to be a human rights lawyer, but also a really exciting time.”

She said many of today’s law students saw lawyers show up at airports in 2017 offering their help after the Trump administration banned immigrants from certain countries. It made a strong impression on them and sent the message that lawyers who get involved can help. 

“I don’t need every law student who takes a human rights class to become a human rights lawyer,” Ní Aoláin said. “Some of the most meaningful have been lawyers who do it on the side. ‘Human rights lawyer’ is a broad term. It is people who are committed to these values wherever they may be.”

School Referenced in News: