Sean O’Brien completes 15 years advancing Hesburgh’s human rights vision

Author: Notre Dame Law School

Sean O Brien And Hesburgh

“Making a Notre Dame education accessible to human rights lawyers from around the world has been the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Sean O’Brien '95, '01 J.D., '02 LL.M., the longtime director of Notre Dame Law School’s LL.M. Program in International Human Rights Law and former assistant director of Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights. He completes his formal service to the program on June 30, 2020. 

During his nearly 15 years with the Law School, O’Brien recruited, admitted, and taught some of the world’s most courageous human rights lawyers, welcoming them to Notre Dame for a year-long advanced degree in human rights law. 

“When I returned to my alma mater, I made a promise to Fr. Ted Hesburgh that I would grow and advance this program he founded that was very close to his heart,” O’Brien said.

Juan Mendez, renowned human rights lawyer and former Notre Dame law professor, is witness to O’Brien’s passionate advocacy for the program.

“Inspired by the example of Fr. Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s human rights program has provided unmatched moral foundations to the commitment of generations of public interest lawyers to defend the rights of others,” Mendez said. “Sean O’Brien is both a product of this program and its standard-bearer. He has been the crucial link between previous achievements and the needs of younger lawyers and advocates from around the world.”

The human rights degree program thrived under O’Brien’s leadership, with average enrollment in the program nearly doubling. The applicant pool and the yearly cohorts became more diverse in terms of gender, religious affiliation, and geography, with each class including lawyers from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. Students entered the program with deeper human rights experience at the domestic, regional, and international levels that contributed to the richness and rigor of conversations in the Law School and in classrooms across the University.

Professor Paolo Carozza, a member of the Law School’s human rights faculty and director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, said, “Sean O'Brien deeply shaped the character of the LL.M. program in international human rights law. He actively fostered the distinctively strong sense of community and solidarity among the program's students and alumni that makes it so unique and attractive. And he consistently embodied and modeled the deep commitment to the service of human dignity that we try to cultivate in our students. The LL.M. program would not be what it is today without Sean's leadership."

The strong moral commitment of Notre Dame lawyers also stood out to Professor Vinodh Jaichand, the LL.M. program’s first graduate in 1988 and the former Head of the School of Law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“The graduates that I have hired from Notre Dame have been well-formed academically, but also have a special sense of what it means to promote human dignity as human rights lawyers,” Jaichand said. “For them, practicing human rights law was to answer a calling and Notre Dame a spiritual home. Sean’s ebullient personality has consistently attracted and honed these remarkable human rights lawyers with a clear sense of purpose.” 

Through the program’s postgraduate internship program and his career mentoring, O’Brien used his personal and professional network to help Notre Dame graduates get a foot in the door at some of the world's leading human rights institutions and organizations. 

“Fr. Hesburgh hoped that graduates of this program would be a ‘fire-brigade’ for peace and justice, that wherever a voice was needed on behalf of human rights and human dignity, a Notre Dame lawyer would be there,” O’Brien said. 

One of those Notre Dame lawyers is Habiba Osman '11 LL.M., who came to Notre Dame as a Fulbright scholar.

“Professor O’Brien has been instrumental both personally and professionally in my career trajectory in the development field and at the United Nations,” Osman said. “Before I joined UN Women, he was in the forefront of defending me when I was unjustly arrested for my human rights work in Malawi. Belonging to the human rights fraternity, he has given me necessary cover and solidarity, which in many ways pressures our governments to recognize and respect the key role we play as human rights defenders. When I think of Notre Dame, Professor O’Brien has been the beacon of the human rights faculty.”

Mendez also sees that Hesburgh's vision has advanced during the last 15 years.

“Many of the graduates of this program are counted among key members of international courts and organs of human rights protection; others have led specialized departments in their democratic governments or served as professors teaching the next generation; and still others today lead civil society organizations recognized as leaders in the human rights field. All of them — and all of us — owe Sean O’Brien a huge debt of gratitude,” Mendez said.

“As the director of a human rights organization that has engaged with and hired many graduates of the program, I will be forever grateful to Sean O’Brien for his kindness, wisdom, and energy in service of a stronger human rights community, and a more just world,” said Viviana Kristicevic, the executive director of the Center for Justice and International Law, one of this hemisphere’s leading human rights organizations. “Starting with the care and nurturing of activists and lawyers, the intellectual rigor accompanied by the willingness to engage students from different cultures and experiences in meaningful debates, and the emphasis in ensuring that compassion and fellowship are at the center of public action, Sean has been a solid, empathetic, and smart leader that embodies what makes Notre Dame's human rights program impactful.”

O’Brien’s innovative “Human Rights Practice” course taught students to be self-critical and strategic in their human rights fact-finding and lawyering. The course encouraged students to reflect on and refine their own human rights advocacy techniques, often working on real-world cases as part of their course work.

Mary Meg McCarthy, a 1980 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the recent recipient of the Notre Dame Alumni Association’s Tom Dooley Award for her work leading one of the nation’s leading immigrant rights organizations, has seen the fruits of O’Brien’s work in the classroom.

“Sean has taught and mentored a generation of human rights lawyers, in whom he has instilled a deep understanding of human rights law and how those instruments influence other areas of law,” McCarthy said. “As a human rights organization and employer of Notre Dame-trained lawyers, the National Immigrant Justice Center is grateful for Sean’s work teaching future lawyers that the work for justice domestically and internationally is rooted in human rights principles.”

O’Brien, who now serves in local government, will continue his work as an educator and connector deeply informed by Hesburgh’s human rights vision.

“This morning, in dozens of countries across the world, hundreds of Notre Dame human rights lawyers woke up and went to work on behalf of human dignity and the common good,” O’Brien said. “I’ve always told our students that Notre Dame is ‘a moveable feast’ — that the wisdom and values and relationships that they developed at Notre Dame would be with them wherever they went. To be a part of their formation and to be the connector between them and Notre Dame fills me with tremendous gratitude.”