An Interview with Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (1997-2002); President of Ireland (1990-1997)
Originally published by Women’s Review of Books, Wellesley College
Mary Robinson may well be the most tough-compassion, pragmatic human rights advocate of recent times. Appearing last December as the key moderator for the State of the World Forum’s Commission on Globalization Meetings in Mexico City, she kept a broad-based convention on track, pushed the outer edge of the discussions on ethical globalization and human security in a post September 11 world, and set in motion far-reaching human rights initiatives throughout Africa.
The bold strides she is making in her work as a private citizen keep the same pace as the innovations that made her tenure as President of Ireland so groundbreaking. At that time, in spite of domestic economic and security issues, Robinson placed a great deal of emphasis on the needs of developing countries. She was the first Head of State to visit Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide and among the first to visit Somalia at the height of the famine, efforts that earned her the CARE Humanitarian Award. It is the same intensity that marked her time as UN High Commissioner, where she worked closely with Secretary-General Kofi Annan to integrate human rights concerns into all activities of the United Nations and to refocus human rights work where it has been proven to be most effective—on a country and regional level. Holding law degrees from Kings Inn, Dublin, and Harvard University, she has also has been named an Honorary Fellow of upwards of eight distinguished Colleges, and has received more high-level Humanitarian and Human Rights Awards than can be listed.
Robinson’s main concern now is to broaden the discussion on human rights, emphasizing economic, social and cultural rights as well as the right to development—all elements of the human rights agenda which she feels is critical to bring stability to this increasingly unstable world. Human rights, as she points out, is not arbitrary or abstract, but is a rule of law to which governments can be held accountable. Like an evangelist with the Good News, she hopes to spread this message to as many levels of society as possible. This may be easier said than done, for reasons women’s and human rights advocates like Charlotte Bunch, Dorothy Thomas, and Mallika Dutt have begun to address. In many, if not most, Western, liberal democracies, including the United States, there’s a visceral disconnect with international human rights standards when it comes to home turf. Robinson recalls, “As High Commissioner, when I took issue with Australia over their harsh detention policy for asylum seekers, they were outraged. “‘We’re a democratic country, we don’t need you here!’ As if international standards only applied to developing countries.” This disconnect extends into activist circles, and may be more deeply embedded in our psyche than we are aware of. Charlotte Bunch, Director of Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership, recently told me, “By and large the women’s movement doesn’t get it…. Within the women’s movement in the United States there’s a perception of the human rights framework as being abstract so women on the ground don’t fully make use of human rights tools in their framework.”
This criticism of the human rights agenda as abstract or arbitrary was once well founded, but it applies to the movement as it was twenty-five years ago. In the interim much has changed. In particular, during the five years Mary Robinson shouldered the mantle of UN High Commissioner, she worked hard to bring the human rights framework out of the realm of abstract or emotionally based argument, applying her lawyer’s mind to shape and define human rights agreements and the organizations that implement and monitor them.
The systematic effort to make it difficult to enforce international human rights standards in the U.S. began in the 1950s. It is said that John Foster Dulles once exclaimed during the Cold War that he would never sign another human rights treaty if it could be used against us. Prophetic warnings, if one takes note that of the six recent major international human rights treaties, the United States has signed only three. It’s the only nation of 193 to refuse to sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child; one of six nations that have rejected the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (even China has ratified this treaty and Chinese NGOs have begun to use its standards to challenge their government on ethnic discrimination issues and policies concerning HIV/AIDs); and one of only three nations that has refused to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
When High Commissioner Robinson applied legally agreed upon international standards to the United States in its recent treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and to Israel in its treatment of Palestinians, it is no secret that the Bush Administration expressed its disapproval so strongly to Secretary-General Annan that Robinson was not given another term. Never one to be bullied, Robinson responded, “I’m prepared to pay the price of taking stands that may not be popular or politically in my best interests. I came into this job not to keep a job—but to do a job.” “If you believe as I do, in the integrity of human rights, then they must be applied without fear or favor. If that’s my legacy, I’m happy about that.”
Undaunted and ever energetic and optimistic, after her term ended on September 11, 2002, Robinson wasted little time. As soon as she stepped down, she set up the Ethical Globalization Initiative, a fifteen-month task force, saying expressly “I will use the tools and connections of my recent role as UN High Commissioner and former President of Ireland to do as much as I can.” Beginning in Africa, with six pilot nation members of NEPAD (the New Partnership for Africa’s Development), she has a clear vision for a way to work with local NGOs and Heads of State to support and strengthen NEPAD’s goals of good governance and rule of law, in the belief that the stability this will bring to the region will raise foreign confidence and encourage financial, technical, and administrative investment and support of local growth initiatives.
Robinson’s agenda is as pragmatic as it is exciting. Working with the times, moving forward to link existing groups, and knitting together social, health, environment, and economic task forces with the thread of human rights, she is setting something in motion that, like viral messaging, will spread far beyond its origins. “I am not seeking to reinvent the wheel” she emphasized again and again at the meetings in Mexico City, “nor to create more work or another position for myself. The structures are already there.”
While Robinson sees Africa as the critical starting point, she envisions a model that can be used in other nations to move other progressive agendas forward. It’s a plan that could infuse the American women’s movement with new strength and legitimacy and spread outwards from there. “It is a tremendously exciting time,” Robinson repeats over and over again. “The more I talk about it, the more jazzed I get.”
Amy Edelstein interviewed Mary Robinson on December 6, 2002, in Mexico City at the Second Annual Meeting of the State of the World Forum’s Commission on Globalization.
Creating Human Security in an Insecure World
AE: Needless to say these are unprecedented times. We are at a cusp of history where how we choose to respond to environmental, economic, security, and other challenges, will affect the quality of life for future generations. You are shaping the discussion on one of the fundamental structures of global society: the relationship between human rights and globalization. As one of the key individuals who has worked to define a universally accepted framework for human rights that meets the reality of the global age, you are also known for holding governments—regardless of their size or power—to a single standard, which has made you many friends and admirers, and some harsh and influential critics. I’d like to explore with you some of the challenges of global transformation as seen through the lens of human rights. To begin, how would you describe the climate for human rights today in a world so concerned with human security?
MARY ROBINSON: I think it’s important at the moment, when there is a preoccupation with security, that we get the agenda back to a concern about human rights. Since September Eleventh, there’s been a lot of anxiety about human security. The message that I want to get across, and that the human rights community as a whole wants to get across, is that not only is there no contradiction between fully upholding the international human rights standards and combating terrorism but that we won’t be able to effectively deal with terrorism unless we uphold standards of human rights.
The concept of human security is much broader than can be satisfied by any Homeland Security Department. The Commission on Human Security chaired by [Nobel Laureate] Amartya Sen and [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] Sadako Ogata is in the process of creating an international legal definition of “human security.” This framework will protect the most vulnerable sectors of society and will include issues of economic security and health security—for example, the issues of HIV/AIDs or a growing aging population, security for children against being trafficked. The work of this Commission is very important. It also serves to reopen the broad human rights agenda at a time when it has been shadowed by security issues in the wake of September eleventh.
AE: There’s a growing concern that the move to decouple human rights and national security is resulting in an erosion of the progress gained by women over recent decades. Can you elaborate on the threat of current war rhetoric on women’s rights?
MR: I think it’s wider than just women’s rights. I came to New York very shortly after the terrible attacks took place, and went down to Ground Zero. I saw the immediate impact, both the trauma and the resilience of people trying to deal with this terrible situation. I then sat down with human rights colleagues to analyze the situation. We concluded that under the existing human rights jurisprudence those attacks constituted “crimes against humanity.”
I thought it was extraordinarily important that this would be the approach to the attacks: criminality and bringing the perpetrators to justice. By holding the perpetrators as the worst criminals in the world, you isolate them. You cannot in the name of any religion justify what they’ve done if the acts are deemed “crimes against humanity.” You limit the support particularly in communities that can be manipulated if the acts are framed as a wider issue. By taking the approach of a “war on terrorism,” my concern is that that actually inflates the terrorists. It broadens their base of support because they’re in a war against the great Satan, as they see it, and as they propagate it to very impressionable young people.
Some of this also has a direct impact on women, partly because that very divide is in danger of strengthening fundamentalism, and although we have to be very concerned about different fundamentalisms—Christian fun- damentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, Jew- ish fundamentalism—at the same time, we also are seeing some alliances between those fundamentalisms which is resulting in probably the greatest erosion of women’s rights.
This is what was so concerning at the World Summit in Johannesburg. Canada’s attempt to require guidelines for women’s health issues to be in accordance with international human rights standards and not be solely subject to traditional custom and religious practices [the debate over Paragraph 47] was resisted by a grouping that included the Vatican, the United States, Syria, and Libya. A very strange alliance when you think about it.
A Vision for Strong Leadership
AE: In discussions addressing the complex issues of globalization, there is often a call for new and strong leadership, yet there are very few definitions of what that might be and what would bring it about. I feel one of the paradoxes of the post-modern, relativistic, anti-authoritarian times that we are in is that there’s a need for a hierarchical framework to be set by leaders at the same time that there’s an unprecedented need to build coalition across diverse groups. How would you characterize the kind of leadership that we need?
MR: I certainly think that it is important to directly address the serious and worrying issues that face us and to do it in a way that brings people with you. The only way of leading now is in broad coalitions that are empowering of those who are being led and allows them to contribute to the evolution of the leadership style.
There is a great disenchantment with globalization. Unfortunately the debate is now very divided between those who say that we must have free trade and that market forces are the only way in which we will bring the world forward, and those who are protesting globalization. There isn’t a meeting of the minds. What I feel is important is to try to shape globalization. That means being able to convince people that we in fact have the power to do that shaping.
When I started to think about what to call the initiative I am now heading, I decided to juxtapose the words “ethical” and “globalization,” because apparently that’s a bit shocking for people. When people ask me “What new ethical concepts are you coming up with?” I explain that I’m not looking for new concepts. They are there. Governments have signed up to value systems. I am focusing on the system of international norms and standards for human rights. Human rights isn’t about rhetoric and words, it’s about technical commitments by governments to legally protect, promote, and progressively implement certain rights like the right to food, safe water, education, health, etc. This is almost a universal system. Take the agreement that came out of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States is the only country that hasn’t signed it. The rest of the world now has a value system defining rights for all children up to the age of eighteen.
The great contribution of the second half of the last century was to devise a normative framework, get agreement on those rules, and get a system going to monitor implementation through the reporting process. Governments report to the treaty bodies, and civil society can more and more influence what happens. We haven’t seen full implementation of the system yet because civil society is just beginning to become skilled enough to insist that governments live up to their obligations.
AE: What would you say is the first step?
MR: What I feel is very important is to bring the legal framework to the fore. The six main instruments of human rights that already exist and can be used are: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention against Discrimination against Women, the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention against Torture. These provide a very good framework in the area of administration, justice, rule of law, and basic economic, social and cultural rights.
I want to emphasize that I believe this technical normative framework is a huge addition to our democracy. I call it part of the “rules of the road of globalization.” I put it beside the environmental conventions, arms control, and labor rights. There is an incredible density of conventions and regulations that have been accepted by nations as being binding on them. They are part of the law but they are not being implemented, in part, because we don’t have joined-up government. It’s most often the department of foreign affairs that ratifies the human rights instruments, the labor minister who ratifies the labor ones, etc. Ministers of trade or agriculture don’t even know what their governments have agreed to. The only way we’ll bridge that gap is by having a very literate civil society. A civil society that knows that these treaties are not just words. They are legally binding. You can name and shame. You have the possibility of airing breaches at the hearings in Geneva or in New York.
AE: How can civil society effectively make use of these conventions and treaties?
MR: Over the last ten years we’ve begun to see civil society groups calling on their governments to adhere to these instruments. The way they are doing it is through the reporting process. Governments have to report every few years on the progress they have made. The UN committees, either in Geneva or in New York, examine the reports publicly. They hear government representatives and NGOs; they consider the points that each side has made and then come out with their concluding observations. Governments are bound to publish these concluding observations. Very often they don’t. They hide them under a shelf. So it’s up to the civil society and agencies like the UN High Commission for Human Rights to make them public. The Internet helps that tremendously. If governments are more and more pinned to living up to their obligations, then the international system as a whole—the World Bank and the IMF—will also have to respect those obligations instead of implementing structural adjustment policies that erode the capacity of a government, for example, to buy food or water.
I think good leadership now is to tell that story well and convincingly to enough people that we link NGOs worldwide, so that the voice of the many is heard. It’s another way of exercising power. You can either do it hierarchically by a few strong voices at the top or you can do it by harnessing in a modern way that respects everybody’s voice, but combines by sheer numbers and collective power the capacity to influence.
AE: Do you feel there are some positive steps in that direction?
MR: Yes, I do. Take, for example, the women’s movement. There’s a huge amount being done at a local level, and increasing networking, and networking between networks. At Beijing there was a group focused particularly on the labor rights aspect of women’s rights. Development bodies like OXFAM are using what they call a “human rights based approach” in their development work. I’m seeing an encouraging linking being made between environmental activists, development experts and human rights advocates. Environment activists are now seeing access to clean water as an environmental issue but also as a human right. This didn’t exist at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. It exists now since Johannesburg and that’s very positive. I see leadership building on those kinds of linkages because the problems are global, they cross over from one issue to another.
AE: So you encourage working at all levels of society, in all sectors?
MR: Very much so. We need to make bridges and I’m happy to say that modern technology lends itself to this. I think this is a way of doing that women have brought forward, which has been assimilated into civil society groups as a whole. I found that when I was President of Ireland, when women’s groups came to see me you would hear every voice, everybody would have a piece of the telling; whereas when a group led by a man would come in, he would do the telling and maybe at the very end say, “Would anybody else like to add anything?”
I think that the women of this century must shape what most affects this world—which is the forces of globalization. We need businesswomen, women who are in politics, local activists, we need academics and researchers all bringing their skills to address these issues. We need women being courageous enough to say we are no longer going to be the women who accept the power game as somebody else has devised it, but we are going to be in on the shaping. Whether it’s as part of the WTO, the G8, the finance ministers of the EU, the crowd protesting in the street because they are disenchanted by what they see about globalization.
A Single Standard
AE: Do you feel that those who wield more power and have more influence should uphold a higher standard of human rights and integrity simply because they’re more influential?
MR: First, I would hold them to the same standard of human rights. But the responsibility to uphold that standard is greater if you have more power and influence. That’s why I had to be very tough on the United States after September Eleventh. The fact that the United States—by not defining the status of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay or by holding people for lengthy periods under the immigration laws—was not complying with international human rights norms and standards was being viewed by the rest of the world as a signal that those standards had changed. I had to say, as UN High Commissioner, that those standards had not changed. They are a legal technical apparatus. They don’t change because one country is not upholding them fully. That is to be dealt with by the Committee on Human Rights when they next look at the report on the United States under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Globalization itself is defined in part by the privatization of power. National governments have less power now than they did. They have stripped themselves of a number of essential services either because of structural adjustment or because of capitalist leadership. You see this in areas of health, education, even prison services. So when you look to the protection of human rights, it’s not as simple as it seemed to be when the governments would ratify international human rights covenants and conventions and would be the primary responsible agents. Now although governments remain the primary responsible agents in a number of circumstances, you have to look to the private sector to uphold the standards of human rights. It is a new and very interesting debate. Fortunately now there is a business-led interest in corporate social responsibility and in supporting good governance in countries. Unless you have rule of law, reliability of contracts, reliability of property laws, you can’t really do business. So increasingly, business is recognizing its own interest and this is quite healthy in itself.
But I worry about the lack of proper protection for what I call public goods: things like water. Because when you privatize the responsibility for public goods then nobody actually takes the responsibility to safeguard the overall public interest.
AE: It becomes even more imperative that civil society begins a very serious dialogue with business.
MR: Yes, and it is beginning to happen. I’ve participated in seminars, for example, where the extractive industries, oil and mining, get together with indigenous peoples. These are not easy dialogues but they are very necessary because both perspectives must be appreciated. We need to create more environments where indigenous peoples can deal directly with those who exercise power over them, be it their governments or, more and more, transnational corporations.
There’s a great deal of sharing of experience now, which is very positive. Take the women’s movement: there’s a linking of good practices between the 117 countries that have ratified the six major conventions on how to pin governments to the law. Sharing of good practices on how to get the gender dimension higher up on the agenda; how to look at rape laws across different countries and protect women when they come into court asserting that they have been raped, or to ensure that there are women at police stations when women who have been raped go for protection, etc. It’s this learning across countries that I think is very important.
Ethical Globalization Initiative
AE: What is your goal now that you no longer hold an official government or international post?
MR: I want to bring the experience of the last five years in particular, but also the seven years that I was president of Ireland, into two tracks of the project that we’re calling the Ethical Globalization Initiative.
The first track is to bring this technical doing of human rights into various aspects of globalization by developing a wide constituency for it and by linking partners who didn’t link before. Most of the people I will be talking to are not human rights people. I want to bring this framework into their world.
Secondly I want to focus on Africa, because I don’t have to be global anymore and African countries need a lot of nurturing in moving forward, in strengthening their own protection systems. I learned that human rights are not protected by the office of the High Commissioner in Geneva. They are protected when you have good judges locally and when the police, instead of torturing, gather evidence to produce at trial. That means you’ve got to have fair trial and a government that can’t be bought off by business. I want to use the commitment that African leaders themselves have made in the New African Partnership for Development. They’ve said it’s their priority to strengthen their administration of justice, their rule of law, to tackle corruption and to adhere fully to international human rights standards. Now, at the moment, that’s rhetoric but there’s a way of making it real and I believe the way is to begin with the projects that already exist in these countries.
I’m getting six pilot countries to participate. We’ve got to establish a baseline. We’ll start with what is being done in projects for child rights, women, HIV/AIDs. By putting these projects forward we will also open them up to further support and funding. It will make it a positive exercise for African countries, which means they’ll want to do more of it. Instead of human rights being a finger-pointing accusing, we’re going to make it a capacity-building, supportive situation for at least ten years, and then gradually upgrade the quality of everything that is being done and fill in the gaps. I believe that if African countries can project that they have sorted out their governance, they will be much more likely to get the investment to bridge the digital divide, to get infrastructure projects going, etc. So it’s directly in their development interests to do this and I think they know this very well themselves. It’s a very exciting time.