Ilene Cohn '85: At Home in the World of Human Rights
|Ilene Cohn on assignment in
In her current assignment with the United Nations, Ilene manages a $40 million trust fund that supports coordination of UN mine action activities, including operational and humanitarian mine clearance in peacekeeping and post-conflict settings like those in Afghanistan, Eritrea, and the D.R. Congo. Ilene, and her work group of ten, coordinates the development of policy, advocacy efforts, the strengthening of relevant international norms, victim assistance initiatives and the mobilization of resources.
The move to mine action marks a career shift for Ilene and she comes to it well prepared. Ilene became interested in international issues while a student at Moritz. Active in the International Law Society, she organized a number of college-wide events. At the time, the international law curriculum was limited; she took every course offered and then successfully lobbied for additional courses. She found a special mentor in Presidents Club Professor of Law, John Quigley. She began working as his research assistant comparing Vietnam and Soviet Penal Codes. Professor Quigley suggested her law journal topic that, prophetically, focused on international jurisdictional issues related to mining activities in Nicaragua. Professor Quigley had gone to law school with the lead attorney representing Nicaragua and introduced him to Ilene who spent her second summer working for his firm.
It was Professor Quigley who suggested Ilene pursue an M.A. in International Affairs at Columbia University following law school. She specialized in human rights and, as a Blaustein fellow, studied at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Following graduation, Ilene launched her career as a human rights advocate. Her first position and the one that determined her career path for years to come as Research Director of Columbia University's project on Children and War.
Professor Quigley says, "Ilene created a field that didn't exist and now she is the leading person in the field of the use of children in armed conflict." Ilene participated in the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. Working for the UN and a variety of human rights organizations, she has researched the impact of warfare on children, studied the relationship between trends in warfare and the use of children in armed conflict, and the impact of local norms and practices on child soldiers. Her work has taken her to Mozambique, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Croatia and broadened her languages to include French and Spanish.
She is co-author with Guy Goodwin-Gill of Child Soldiers: The Role of Children in Armed Conflict, commissioned by the Henry Dunant Institute and published by Oxford University Press. She has also co-authored chapters on children in post-genocide Rwanda and the mental health of children in war. Her articles have appeared in a variety of scholarly publications including the Harvard Human Rights Journal, the International Journal of Refuge Law and the Columbia University Journal of International Affairs. She serves on the advisory board of the International Journal of Children's Rights.
Professor Quigley provides an example of her stature in the international human rights community, "When the Secretary General of the UN was creating a sub-office for children and armed conflict in 1999, his special representative in charge recruited Ilene to serve as legal and child rights advisor." There she was primarily responsible for the Office's advocacy and policy work and served as the Office's liaison with Security Council Member States, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and UN system partners.
Ilene has been a visiting lecturer and associate professor at Columbia University. Her current course, "Children and Human Rights: Protection of Children's Rights in Armed Conflict Situations" uses children and armed conflict as a lens through which to examine tendencies and trends in human rights and humanitarian law, policy, and practice. She brings a unique blend of idealism and realism to the classroom. Ilene challenges students to question every assumption and declaration organizations make about the impact of their work on behalf of war-affected children. She will return to Moritz this January to participate in "Winning the Peace: Post-Conflict Dispute Resolution and Nation Building," a symposium sponsored by the Ohio State Journal of Dispute Resolution.
As a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program between 1997 and 1999, Ilene conducted field research in Sierra Leone and Liberia on the protection of children in peace processes. Ilene has been a featured speaker and moderator at conferences on five continents hosted by organizations such as UNICEF, Swedish Red Cross, Amnesty International, and the United Nations.
Ilene met her husband through her work and they have two children, both born during their parents' assignments on UN peacekeeping missions – Clara in El Salvador and Mateo in Guatemala. The family resides in New York City.