Featured Student Scholar: Aida Ziganshina
Ms. Ziganshina obtained her law degrees from Kazan Federal University (Russia) and Groningen University (Netherlands), graduating with honors. She has taken part in various law moot courts, including Jessup, ICC, Jean Pictet, L. Brown, and F. Martens, as well as Model UN and OIC conferences. She worked for one year as a junior lawyer with a law firm, focusing on litigation in investment law. Her main spheres of research are international humanitarian law and human rights in armed conflict. She participated in the program of the International Committee of the Red Cross to spread knowledge of international humanitarian law in Russia. Ms. Ziganshina is an alumna of the Future Leaders Exchange (Flex), Erasmus Mundus Aurora, and Oxford Russia Fund programs, and is a recipient of the Russian Federation President’s Best Student Award. She promoted sharia studies and Islamic banking at her university, and has published numerous papers on Islamic law in armed conflict. Ms. Ziganshina is the recipient of a scholarship from the prestigious 2014-2015 Fulbright Foreign Student Program.
How did you first become interested in human rights law?
Ever since I was young I have responded to injustice very strongly, and deep inside I have determined to make it my life’s purpose to try and make a difference. As a child I was concerned about animal rights, just as many of us were. Later, growing up, I realized that some people have a life which is much worse than the life of a stray dog, and started to look for possibilities to make my little contribution. Russian literature drew my attention to injustice and the heroism of people, fostering a desire to help and a dedication to global goals. Russian philosophy is not based on Bentham’s assessment of “greater common good,” it is based on Russian cosmism. That philosophy has also greatly contributed to my values and my desire to see the world as a whole and seek the universal common good.
The most shocking event that changed my perception of life was the Beslam hostage situation in a Russian school, where children my age (I was 14 at the time) suffered for almost a week and many of them died. I think that event greatly determined the path I chose in life. The terrible consequences of armed conflicts have a “butterfly effect” not only in the conflict zone. I was grew up during two civil wars, in Russia and in Chechnya, facing the constant threat of terrorist attack.
When I was 16, I received the U.S. State Department “Future Leaders Exchange” (Flex) scholarship. During that year I studied in a U.S. high school, where I took classes on the U.S. government and economy, learnt about democracy and human rights, and faced a very different approach to education and behavior in the community - most importantly, the awareness of citizens about their civil rights. It was in the U.S. that I decided I would like to become a lawyer back in Russia.
From what or whom have you drawn inspiration in your work as a human rights lawyer?
My education in Russia was very rewarding. During my second year I met an amazing professor who had just come from Turkey. He held a discussion club on international humanitarian law, and even though as a second year bachelor degree student I was far from international law, my professor drew my attention to this area. The Russian Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross was also a great help to me and their high moral standards, professionalism, generosity and kindness played a key role in my education and my professional interests. The ICRC lawyers have always been an example for me and a great professional inspiration.
What issues do you feel most determined to address as a human rights lawyer?
The main interests for me as both practitioner and academic are international humanitarian law, international criminal law and research on the collision between international humanitarian law and human rights. Russia has a long history of armed conflicts and I believe that international humanitarian law is especially important in such a militarized country as Russia. We are still overcoming the consequences of the Chechen war and now there is a Ukrainian conflict. I think that there is a need to increase awareness about IHL and to act in the best interest of victims of armed conflict.
Unfortunately it is in times of war when the most gross violations of human rights occur, and I believe that the very minimum of human rights protection requires the protection of people against war.
What obstacles do you perceive as the most challenging in your work?
First of all, it is very hard to find a job in international humanitarian law. I hope that my education at Notre Dame will help me to overcome this obstacle.
Secondly, international human rights and international humanitarian law are very politicized, especially if we compare it to spheres of law like international civil aviation. The spheres of law that I am most interested in require a lot of empathy, include many ethical questions, and constantly require self-assessment.
Why did you decide to study human rights at Notre Dame? How has the experience been?
The University of Notre Dame is known globally for the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and the most prominent professors are accessible to share their experience and expertise. Also, Notre Dame has a very strong alumni network which I find to be a great advantage of the school. And, of course, the campus is beautiful and the library is full of the most relevant and best-known sources.
How will an LL.M. education from Notre Dame allow you to be a more effective human rights lawyer?
As I have mentioned before, Notre Dame has a very practical approach to education. The LL.M. program prepares one for real life situations and provides insight into what kind of questions may arise in human rights advocacy. Also, knowledge gained about standards of writing, improvement of essential trial advocacy skills, and analytical skills are essential for a practitioner.