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Meet Rachel Killean

Activist Lawyer, featuring Dr Rachel Killean, Launches

The latest podcast episode of Activist Lawyer features Dr Rachel Killean, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, and a Fellow of the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice.

Dr Killean researches responses to conflict and violence, with a particular focus on transitional justice, responses to sexual and gender-based violence and crimes against the environment. She is the author of Victims, Atrocity and Justice: Lessons from Cambodia (Routledge, 2018).

Dr Killean’s interview on Activist Lawyer is available to listen to now https://open.spotify.com/show/73ZXpxDvN3vudpkmjADh9Q?si=9jC3_gWcQbKJDvTBdrJ0Hg and across all major streaming platforms or via www.ActivistLawyer.com

Here, we speak to Dr Killean to find out what activism means to her.

How important is activism?

R: Unfortunately, rights are rarely granted willingly and those with privilege and power are often reluctant to concede or share their power. Positive change only comes through the concerted work of individuals and collectives pushing for justice. Whether it is through the courts or through act of civil disobedience, activism is a crucial part of building a better world for ourselves and future generations.

Can we use the law effectively as a tool for activism?

R: To a certain extent, yes. Using the law as a site of activism means engaging with the existing power structures rather than imagining new possibilities, so there are limits to what the law can achieve. However, law provides us with a forum in which to assert our rights and hold public bodies accountable for their actions, and this is an incredibly important part of any functioning democracy that we should not take for granted. Law also plays an important role in establishing what behaviour we find acceptable and unacceptable as a society, which gives it enormous declarative power.

Whether we can use criminal law as a tool for activism or not is a more difficult question. I am not at all convinced that any good comes from the penal justice system. Often, it is a source of significant harm. However, for as long as it remains the dominant system for dealing with societal harm, I believe it is important to continue advocating for it to treat both victims of crime and persons accused of crime with dignity and care.

Tell us about a career milestone / case that will stay with you forever

R: Putting together the Sexual Violence on Trial edited collection with Dr Eithne Dowds and Professor Anne-Marie McAlinden was a career highlight for a lot of reasons. Being able to bring together practitioners, activists, and academics to reflect on responses to sexual violence crimes felt crucial in Northern Ireland at that time (following the acquittal of Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and Blane McIlroy in the ‘Rugby Rape Trial’). It felt meaningful to create this space for people to share their different perspectives on how we can best respond to these types of crime, and I am always gratified when I hear that a feminist activist or lawyer has been reading and benefiting from the edited collection. Since then, I have been able to discuss my own chapter (on introducing legal representation for complainants) with the judiciary in Northern Ireland, and I can sense that there is an appetite for a system that treats sexual violence complainants with greater dignity and respect.

In which area does your current research / publications focus on, and how did you get involved in this area?

R: My work is currently made up of three strands of research. The first builds on my ten years of experience conducting research in Cambodia, particularly how Cambodia has addressed the legacies of its conflict and authoritarian regimes. The second focuses on how criminal law responds to sexual violence crimes. This research emerged out of my research in Cambodia, where victims of sexual violence committed during the Khmer Rouge regime struggled for recognition for a long time. Since then, I have broadened this area of research to consider responses to sexual violence across Ireland and the UK, as reflected in the edited collection discussed on this podcast. The third strand also emerged out of my research in Cambodia, but also out of the crisis in which we currently find ourselves. This strand focuses on how we can prevent and repair environmental harm perpetrated during times of conflict.


What is the most important change to the law that you feel needs to be addressed now?

R: I have two changes. First, I think we should introduce publicly funded legal representation for complainants in serious sexual offence trials. These representatives would play an important role in advising complainants throughout disclosure procedures and could protect them from inappropriate sharing of previous sexual history and invasive cross examination.

Second, if we are to secure an inhabitable earth for future generations, we need to think more seriously about expanding rights to nature. Our current environmental laws and regulations merely facilitate environmental destruction. Without a significant rehaul of our legal and policy frameworks, I am not sure how we will ever learn to take the protection of nature seriously.

Subscribe to Activist Lawyer and download the latest episodes on your chosen podcasting platform. See https://open.spotify.com/show/73ZXpxDvN3vudpkmjADh9Q?si=9jC3_gWcQbKJDvTBdrJ0Hg for episodes.

Publications: Rachel Killean | Twitter: @rkillean

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