Mary Robinson: International Human Rights Advocate

September 30 – Mary Robinson (HLS ’68) addressed a packed Forum at the Kennedy School of Government’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy last Monday evening on the topic of “States, Society and the Future of Human Rights.”

Robinson, who served as the first woman president of Ireland, recently concluded her term as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She is largely credited with turning the relatively new position of High Commissioner for Human Rights into one of the most high profile departments within the UN.

Robinson’s outspoken views and criticism of governments’ human rights records meant that the Irishwoman was never far from controversy during her term of office.

For example, she angered members of the Bush administration by expressing concern for members of the Taliban taken prisoner by US forces during the military campaign in Afghanistan. She also clashed with China’s President Jiang Zemin, cautioning him not to use the war against terrorism as an excuse to suppress ethnic minorities.

Experience Tempered by Events in 2001
In her first address after completing her term of office as UN High Commissioner, Robinson praised UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s role in incorporating a “human rights agenda” as a standard feature of the peace-keeping and other UN international roles, and expressed support for her successor, Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Robinson spoke of how her job satisfaction as UN High Commissioner was somewhat tempered by the experiences of her last year in office. In particular, she pointed to the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the Durban conference against racism as two examples of the stresses associated with her former position.

“The scale and systemic nature of the September 11 terrorist attacks qualify as crimes against humanity under international jurisprudence,” begun Robinson, “there is however, no trade-off between counter-terrorism and human rights.”

Robinson attacked “undemocratic regimes that used 9/11 to pursue their own agendas.” Further, democratic governments have taken “actions to undermine fundamental human rights” in the course of pursing
counter-terrorism measures.

“The challenge will be to preserve human rights in a world of tightened security,” Robinson said, “we need to fight a war on disadvantage, discrimination and despair.”

Robinson described the September 2001 Durban world conference on racism as “one of [her] most frustrating and rewarding experiences.” She highlighted the resurgence of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, coupled with an increased, mistaken association of the Islamic faith with belligerence. “The forces of intolerance are on the rise,” Robinson warned.

Though the proceedings at Durban were plagued with “hateful language used by intolerants,” Robinson challenged the audience to read the final paper of the proceedings, which she described as “useful.” (The Durban conference was widely viewed as calamitous after it descended into a bitter row between Israel and the Middle Eastern countries)

Increasing Importance of NGOs
Robinson acknowledged the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in providing “a powerful new movement for change” in the human rights movement.

Historically, the human rights agenda was largely ignored by many governments, argued Robinson. The active role of NGOs has been responsible for “moving the debate on ahead of governments.” Robinson praised the ability of NGOs such as Amnesty International to shape the human rights agenda of UN institutions such as the International Criminal Court.

The Human Rights of Women
“Women are the poorest of the world’s poor,” said Robinson, pointing to the fact that women comprise two-thirds of the world’s population living on less than $1 per day. Women around the world continue to be discriminated against in many areas including reproductive rights, education, and what Robinson referred to as “the feminization of poverty.”

Robinson used an example of her visit to Kabul for International Women’s day to demonstrate the “emergence of a sophisticated, literate women’s rights movement.” Effort continues to be required in order to “pin down” the relevant legal frameworks absent in many countries to protect women from human rights violations.

The Future – and the role of B-school
Adopting a “rights-based approach” will be key to continuing to make human rights matter. In particular, developed nations will need to take actions to “protect those not benefiting from globalization.”

Robinson praised the role of the Kennedy School and her alma mater, Harvard Law School, in raising the profile of human rights. She challenged Harvard Business School to engage in the debate on human rights, saying that “very little has been done to integrate social and human rights instruction into MBA programs.”

With the Kennedy, Law, and Business schools working together on social and human rights issues, Robinson argued that future generations of students will be able to better live up to the motto inscribed over the Dexter Gate, one of the gates to Harvard Yard – “enter to grow in wisdom; depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”