Activist for human rights who spoke truth to power

Karen Kenny: February 17th, 1966 - May 3rd, 2015


The human rights activist and academic Karen Kenny, who has died aged 49, was the epitome of a whole generation of young Irish men and women who were the first in their families to benefit from third level education and who used this as a springboard for a profound personal and professional commitment both to their own society and to the wider world.

She was born in Bristol to Irish emigrant parents from Mayo, the family returning to Ireland when she was seven. Her parents, driven by a belief in education, not only supported her through secondary schooling at St Louis Rathmines, Trinity College (where she helped found the college’s first free legal aid centre), and at the King’s Inns, but encouraged her to travel widely as a teenager with Voluntary Service International.

After college, she won a Swiss government scholarship to the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, and lived and worked abroad for some decades before returning to Ireland in 2001.

From 1992 onwards, she specialised in international human rights fieldwork. She served as a UN human rights adviser in peacekeeping contexts, as well as serving the Security Council’s Commission of Experts as a war crimes investigator in El Salvador, former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Her UN experiences engaged not only her commitment to human rights but also her critical faculties: when she decided against renewing her Rwanda UN contract after she came to the conclusion that the UN model was ineffective in dealing with the Rwandan genocide, this became an international issue.

Former president Mary Robinson, who first got to know her during her work as UN high commissioner for human rights, described Kenny this week as someone who had “a true voice, and who spoke out with great passion on human rights issues”. New organisation In 1995 she founded, with Brian McKeown of Trócaire, the International Human Rights Trust, which specialised in the framework and practical policy aspects of the integration of human rights in peacekeeping, development and humanitarian action. Their styles were different but complementary and, together, extremely effective.

On McKeown’s retirement in 2003 the trust developed into the International Human Rights Network, in which she was partnered by her husband, Patrick Twomey, whom she had met during her legal studies. They married in 1997.

In her professional life she advised not only UN agencies, but also the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Commission, governments as well as NGOs and the private sector, regarding human-rights-based approaches.

Her work was characterised too by her sometimes inconvenient but well-grounded tendency to speak truth to power whenever necessary. Her 1996 report for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), which was commissioned to coincide with Ireland’s European Union presidency in that year, argued powerfully that UN human rights monitoring in conflict areas such as Bosnia and Rwanda lacked consistency and coherence, that field staff were often poorly trained, and that there had been an overemphasis on legal qualifications. ‘Fond perception’ She served as an expert member of the DFA’s standing committee on human rights between 1997 and 2014. This enhanced rather than militated against the effectiveness of her warning, in an article on “Ireland, the Security Council, and Afghanistan” in the Trócaire Development Review in 2001, that the role of Ireland as an impartial voice for peace through the promotion of human rights around the world “can, and should be, more than fond perception”.

Under the auspices of both the trust and the network, she and her collaborators trained, over the years, thousands of development workers from a wide range of backgrounds in the essential human rights dimension of their work. Capacity-building, and holding large and sometimes cumbersome or ineffective organisations to account, was at the core of all this activity.

Her personal life was as busy as her professional one: she was, inter alia, a fiddle-player who was a keen follower of the Willie Clancy Week in Clare, an occasional actor (she appeared as Maria in an amateur production of Brian Friel’s Translations at the Ramor Theatre in Cavan during a period when she was simultaneously working on a human rights project in Belfast), and – as described by herself – a lover of many things, including rainbows, yoga, swimming, cycling, red wine, funky clothes, Nepalese lokta paper, dark humour and black and white movies.

The leitmotif for her funeral, she insisted not long before she died after four years of coping with cancer, was to be “joy, strength and courage”.

She is survived by Patrick, by their son, Miguel, her sisters Roseann and Mary, and her brother, Greg.