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Human rights top agenda for ex-president of Ireland

by Amy Kingsley

Mary Robinson took a moment early in her speech on Sept. 21 to clarify her presentation’s title, “Making Human Rights the Compass for all Ethical Globalization.”

“I would like to explain gently for a while because the title of my speech tonight frankly sounds a bit pompous,” she said.

Pomposity is not a characteristic many world leaders have attached to Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and former United Nations high commissioner for human rights who made her name by humanizing both offices. Her appearance at War Memorial Auditorium as part of Guilford College’s Bryan Series coincided with a high-profile human rights dispute in the United States between President Bush and Congressional Republicans over the use of torture.

For the most part, Robinson steered the discussion away from the human rights of political prisoners, instead emphasizing the basic survival rights of those in the developing world.

“What you probably don’t hear enough about is the right to food, safe water, sanitation, shelter, health and education,” she said. “I tend to only need one set of statistics to bring home to me how cruel, how negligent, how’… I don’t know’… brutal the world is to those in developing countries.”

Robinson told the audience that 30,000 children under the age of five die every day from preventable diseases and hunger.

“We can’t have more than 600,000 women in Africa die in childbirth,” she said. “We need to prioritize the health of women and children.”

Throughout her 20-year career in the Irish senate, Robinson lobbied hard for women’s rights in Ireland, a country then dominated by the Catholic Church. As president she signed a bill that fully legalized contraception, a cause for which she was an early advocate; she overturned a ban on married women working in the civil service early in her political career.

Robinson, who is also a lawyer, told the crowd about one of her legal cases involving women working manufacturing jobs at a telephone company who were paid less than male janitors at the same company. The case was referred to European Union courts on a technicality, but Robinson eventually won a large settlement for the women. She used the example to demonstrate the importance of legal recourse beyond the country level.

“There can be levels of justice and it can be a very good thing for a national system to accept a wider system,” she said.

In 1990 Robinson was elected president of Ireland and set about transforming the non-head-of-state office from a remote, almost ceremonial post into one with political clout. She reached out to the Irish Diaspora and was the first head of state to visit Rwanda after the genocide.

Although Robinson boasted approval ratings higher than 90 percent, she left the presidency early to assume the role of UN high commissioner for human rights.

“It was a very small office with a very large mandate,” she said. “One of the decisions that I made early on was to be close to victims.”

Before Robinson’s term, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had been dedicated to bureaucratic tasks. Secretary-General Kofi Annan extended Robinson’s term for a year because of her success in strengthening the office.

Currently Robinson serves as the president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, a project that works with both public- and private-sector initiative overseas.

“Everyone in the world should realize they have a birthright of human rights,” she said.

As in her previous positions as president of Ireland and high commissioner, Robinson used her Greensboro appearance to urge social change in her audience members. She quoted passages from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizing that human beings have both inherent dignity and duty within their communities. Robinson urged audience members to seek fair trade products, reach out to those who are invisible within the community and support the United Nation’s small arms campaign.

“[Small arms] are the weapons of mass destruction,” Robinson said. “These are the weapons women are raped at the end of.”

After her speech, Robinson answered several questions from the audience concerning the status of the United Nations, the role of religious extremism in human rights abuses and President Bush’s stand on torture and due process for Guantanamo detainees. She garnered applause several times from a crowd composed mostly of those opposed to Bush’s human rights record.

“What has happened since [Sept. 11, 2001] is really quite frightening,” she said. “In the 1990s, the US was always the greatest ally when we said torture is never permissible.”

Now leaders of smaller and less prosperous countries follow the US lead in making excuses for human rights violations, Robinsons said.

“We’ve seen things slip quite alarmingly and we need to get them back on track,” she said.

To that end, she encouraged both students and audience members to make human rights matter in their community.

“If human rights are to matter in small places close to home,” she said. “Then they must also matter in the corridors of power.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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