Inspiring peopleAoife Nolan

Placing human rights at the centre of policymaking
Co-lead for Rights and Justice
Aoife Nolan
How would you explain your research?

The backdrop to my research is the challenging relationship between poverty and human rights. How can we translate people’s survival needs into meaningful legal rights ("social and economic rights")? My research is concerned with how the theory, language and concepts of human rights can advance social justice in practice. I look at the role and responsibilities of courts and governments when it comes to human rights implementation.

Stand fast! What is a niche area of research today may be mainstream and sexy tomorrow
What inspired you to pursue this area?

I’ve lived in a variety of places, including Africa, Asia, Europe and the US; while the causes of poverty and human rights violations may differ, the experiences of poor people in all of those places bear out concern about the impact of poverty on human rights - particularly for those who are socially vulnerable. It is very important for lawyers to consider how the law addresses the challenges faced by poor people. My work contributes to that discussion.

How will your research affect the average person?

My research can be used to argue that the state and others such as multinational corporations and international financial institutions have duties towards the most socially vulnerable in society. As such, the impact of my research is not so much on the average person. Rather, it is most relevant to people who are marginalised to ensure that they are not ignored in terms of the decision-making over the distribution of resources and/or power within society. My research is concerned with ensuring that those who are disadvantaged – who are not "average" – have a voice and are given adequate social protection.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

I really enjoyed my inaugural lecture on human rights and financial and economic crises here at Nottingham. It was an opportunity to look back on what I’ve done in terms of research, to consider where I’m going – and of course to thank a lot of people!

More generally, seeing my research used by policymakers, human rights advocates and others to positively address the situations of people who are socially and economically disadvantaged. For instance, when my research has been used by UN experts on human rights, the Council of Europe or by national human rights institutions like the Children’s Commissioner for England. It’s really important to me that, in addition to being academically excellent, my research also has a "real world" value.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Ultimately excellent academic research speaks for itself. You may be pushed to be involved in lots of different projects - if you’re good, people will want a "piece of you", and that can be exciting and brings its own opportunities. However, you need to ensure that your work is always of top academic quality. If you’re doing controversial research around human rights, like I do, and it’s not academically excellent, then it’s a gift to opponents. It could do huge damage to the human rights project generally – not just your own reputation.

The second thing I would say is that you have to be an effective communicator. Many academics are good at talking to other academics but we have to be able to speak to a broader audience. It’s a challenge being able to write for different audiences and you have to proactively learn how to do that. You can’t just assume that you’ll pick up these skills along the way. 

What’s the biggest challenge for researchers in your field?

If your research is cutting-edge it’s often hard to get funding. For instance, in human rights, you’ll often come up hard against political, economic and legal orthodoxies. The last 20 years has seen an explosion in human rights work: it has become more mainstream in law schools, in the media and society. However, funding bodies can take time to catch up with pressing human rights issues. As a result, you can spend half your time covering the knowledge gap before you can make a case for a particular project. 

We have to be able to speak to a broader audience
Which person in your field do you wish you could meet?

The 18th-century writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. While she wouldn’t necessarily have described her work using the terminology that modern human rights lawyers use, her concern with the position of socially and legally disempowered people – specifically women – was ground-breaking and hugely influential in terms of feminist and human rights thinking. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Stand fast! What is a niche area of research today may be mainstream and sexy tomorrow. That’s certainly what happened to me.

If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?

I’d be involved in human rights advocacy in a policy or legal practitioner context. 

If you could go back in time where would you go?

Calvary 33AD – just to check

What research other than your own really excites you right now?

I’m finding the growing research around economics, development and human rights extremely exciting. It’s multidisciplinary and it’s an area of huge importance given the recent financial and economic crises and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This field is going to be central to efforts to address challenges around poverty and social justice over the next couple of decades. I also love the fact that it brings together people from a range of global academic contexts.

You’re thrown 100 years into the future – what’s the first thing you’d look up?

Like everyone else, I’m sure the first thing would be to Google my name! More seriously, I’d look up "social and economic rights" and "constitutions". Would the extensive debate and momentum around these rights have translated into lasting legal change? I’d like to see if "social and economic rights" had become a standard, uncontroversial element of legal rights protection or whether interest in the area had just been a passing phase. 

Global Research Theme 
Cultures and Communication

Research Priority Area 
Rights and Justice

View Aoife's full profile

Professor Aoife Nolan is Professor of International Human Rights Law in the Faculty of Social Sciences.

World-class research at the University of Nottingham

University Park
+44 (0) 115 951 5151

Athena Swan Silver Award