Former Irish President speaks on human rights


After an incredible journey during the 1990s as president of Ireland and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson told an assembled crowd of students at the Kennedy School of Government Monday that they need to start paying attention to human rights. Robinson’s speech, “Making Human Rights Matter: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Time Has Come,” was a defense of human rights as a legal and moral issue that must be protected and enforced in the new age of globalization.

“It is the first time in many years that I can speak not as a head of state, but as Mary Robinson, concerned citizen.” It is no surprise that the KSG chose Robinson as the first speaker in a year-long series on the state of society and the future of rights. Robinson’s speech sought to move the ideals embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the twenty-first century. She praised both the work of non-governmental organizations and their collaboration in recent years in building an international civil society. She also spoke of challenging events during her last year as High Commissioner, including the aftermath of September 11 and the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa.

Robinson was introduced by University President Lawrence Summers, who echoed her words in describing the 1990 presidential election in Ireland: “I was elected president by the women of Ireland who, instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.”

Robinson thanked the assembled crowd with a warm note of praise for the university itself, “I cannot think of a better place to give my first address after leaving my position than Harvard University,” she said.

Robinson commented that her last visit to the University was in 1998, when she was still new to the position of High Commissioner and was still uncertain how she was going to perform her task. In her new role, she worked with NGOs throughout the world, drawing upon their research and their years of expertise in human rights. “I have witnessed the emergence of a powerful movement for change,” she said, commenting on the recent progress of NGOs in coordinating with one another on a global scale. “I saw this most profoundly last month in Johannesburg,” she said, referring to the Johannesburg Summit 2002, a United Nations event that addressed global environmental and health issues.

“I am confident in saying that progress has been made in the last five years on human rights,” Robinson assured the audience. She then went on to talk about her final year as High Commissioner and the challenges of promoting human rights against a backdrop of national interests. The first challenge, she said, was at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa. The United States and Israel withdrew from the conference because they felt the final document would contain hateful language against Israel.

Robinson argued that she took a side against singling out Israel in such a manner: “What I regret most is the hateful language used by some members during draft discussions,” she said. “I said we had to get out all the references about Zionism being racism, but we also had to include a reference about the Middle East.” In the end, she admitted, the conference did not please either side.

Robinson also admonished the United States not to let the events of September 11 outweigh human rights considerations. “Some have said that after the attacks human rights needed to be curtailed,” she said. “I do not believe that for a moment.” Robinson argued that the attacks were not only directed against the United States, but also against human rights in general. As such, Robinson argued, the attacks constituted a crime against humanity.

Robinson was educated at Trinity College and holds law degrees from the King’s Inn in Dublin and Harvard University. She served as a Senator in Ireland for 20 years before being elected president of Ireland in 1990. While in office, she sought to develop Ireland’s cultural, political and economic links with other countries. She was the first head of state to visit Rwanda after the genocide and the first head of state to visit the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Robinson was nominated and endorsed to the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997, a position she held until her departure this year.

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