Professor Michael O’Flaherty’s work in the field of human rights has seen him travel all over the world and though he has returned to his hometown for his latest post, the effects of his work will have a global reach.
Born on Dominick Street, raised on Whitestrand Road and educated in the Jes, Prof. O’Flaherty had a typical Galway upbringing. His departure for boarding school aged 12, however, marked the beginning of a fascinating journey.
After school, he first qualified as a solicitor, then studied for and was ordained in the priesthood before then being laicized and taking up his present vocation in human rights, which has taken him to such war-torn parts of the world as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Sierra Leone.
His choice to go into human rights law was definitely influenced by his time in the priesthood, he says. “They’re all interconnected. They’re all about trying to make the world a more decent place.”
Prof. O’Flaherty’s first job in human rights was in the United Nations, where he helped set up its human rights programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the conflict there in 1994. He subsequently headed up the UN human rights operation in Sierra Leone in 1998.
While he witnessed some appalling atrocities in his time in both places and this had a profound effect on him, he maintains that it was vitally important that he was affected by what he saw.
“It’s the people that go through these situations unaffected that, in a way, should never be let near them. It’s the passion, the anger and the outrage that drives you to make a contribution, both to immediately reduce the suffering, but also in the longer term to see that there’s justice and accountability,” he explains.
Despite witnessing vile abuses such as the chopping off of victims’ limbs, lips and ears as well as “massive sexual abuse” in places like Sierra Leone, Prof. O’Flaherty maintains that he never succumbed to despair in the face of such horror.
“You had to make sure not to despair and realise that the monitoring work we were doing, the reporting that we were doing, would eventually make a difference,” he says. He notes that in the short term, the monitors’ work brought the suffering to a wider global audience and in the long term, was later used as evidence to bring perpetrators to justice.
Though living in war-torn Sarajevo, or in the midst of Sierra Leone’s civil war, put his life at risk on more than one occasion, Prof. O’Flaherty is reluctant to dwell on the risks he took as, he says, they pale in comparison with the suffering of the many innocents that are harmed by such conflicts.
“We’re not the main story, the main story is these completely defenceless [people], women and children mainly, who face terror constantly.”
Prof. O’Flaherty took up an academic position at the University of Nottingham eight years ago, around the same time he was elected to the UN Human Rights Committee.
This move allowed him to continue his human rights work, albeit at a different level, while he simultaneously worked at the university to create a systematic way of operating for human rights monitors.
He is also the Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; a role that means it is “inappropriate” for him to comment on Ireland’s own human rights records, although he admits that there are some problems here, as with all countries.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that there isn’t a country on earth that doesn’t have human rights problems. The problems will change from place to place but there is no country with a 100 per cent record,” he says.
Ireland was criticised in some quarters for welcoming the now-Chinese Communist Part General Secretary Xi Jinping last year, given China’s less-than prefect human rights record.
However, as Prof. O’Flaherty explains that “just criticising from a distance and not engaging isn’t going to achieve much at all,” and that maintaining a balanced relationship is much more productive.
“What really matters is to be able to make a difference for human rights in other countries, like China, and in order to make a difference, you have to maintain an engagement and that’s why working to promote human rights in China is a huge challenge,” he explains.
As newly appointed head of the Irish Centre of Human Rights at NUI Galway, Prof. O’Flaherty says he does not propose to make sweeping changes during his tenure, but to build on the excellent work of his predecessor, Prof. William Schabas, and his team.
“I want to maintain Galway as a centre of excellence for global human rights research and global human rights policy-making so that the Irish Centre for Human Rights has something important to say for the protection of human rights worldwide, as well as in Ireland.”