The Education of Mary Robinson

A Conversation With the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights

When Mary Robinson, the UN's high commissioner for human rights, announced in recent weeks that she will leave her post in September, it was widely understood as the result of the Bush administration's anger with her performance over the last year. She was criticized for her handling of the World Racism Conference in Durban last summer—which the United States, along with Israel, walked out of—and, perhaps fatally, for her very public concerns regarding the American war on terrorism after September 11.

"She rightly criticized the U.S. government for ripping up the Geneva convention, and for civilian casualties in Afghanistan," says Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. "She was only doing her duty. This administration in particular does not like being held to international standards."

It was a rueful ending to a story that began with so much excitement in the summer of 1997. The announcement that Robinson, the Irish president, was to be the UN's next human rights commissioner drew excited gasps from rights defenders the world over. As a young lawyer in Dublin, Robinson carved a space fighting for women and gays (including her successful fight for the right of Irish women to contraception in the 1970s). As Ireland's first female president, she focused her bully pulpit on Africa, becoming the first head of state to visit Somalia during the 1992 famine and Rwanda after the 1994 genocide (the first of three Rwandan trips). Her appointment to the UN post had strong U.S. backing; President Clinton called her a "splendid choice" and pledged his administration's full cooperation with her mandate.

But times and presidents change. Robinson has refused to comment on whether American criticism prompted her decision to leave. Her departure raises troubling questions about the future of the UN's top human rights job and whether its mission to promote human rights standards can ever be successful as long as prickly superpowers reject international scrutiny.

Israel is one of those countries hoping to avoid Mary Robinson's scrutiny. Despite Foreign Minister Shimon Peres's contention that his government has "nothing to hide," Israeli diplomats told the U.S. this week that the high commissioner could not participate in a UN fact-finding mission to the region. The mission will investigate Israeli military action in the Jenin refugee camp. Robinson won't comment on Israel's decision, but spoke with the Voice about the other issues that have made her year such a tumultuous one.

Why are you leaving your post as high commissioner? I accepted the strong encouragement of [UN secretary general] Kofi Annan to continue for a full year after my first term ended in 2001. I'm actually very glad he did prevail on me, because it allowed me to be in the position for the World Conference Against Racism, and then something that none of us could ever have foreseen, the terrible attacks of September 11 and their aftermath. I certainly intend to continue to advocate and work in a human rights context, but perhaps in a broader frame of shaping a more "ethical globalization," which is a debate that interests me very much.

But it is widely held that because of a number of positions you've taken in the last year, on the war on terrorism and in handling the Durban race conference, the decision [to stay or go] was not yours to make. Did the U.S. put pressure on Kofi Annan to remove you? I'd prefer at this stage not to speculate on those issues.

What are, in your view, the dangers of the ongoing war on terror? First of all, I think it's important to combat terrorism, which deprives people of their right to life. But certain governments are using the language of combating terrorism to clamp down on legitimate dissent, to be much tougher on human rights defenders, to tighten up in very strict ways asylum and refugee policy, to provide harsh measures on those who are undocumented migrants, and so on. It's worrying that there would be prolonged detention without any trial or full clarification of the reason for the detention, especially in those countries that have ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR].

What I have emphasized is that it is possible to combat terrorism while fully upholding human rights standards. There is a provision, for example, for seeking derogations from certain obligations in times of national emergency. Great Britain has done it. I have looked to the United States, given the measures it has taken [to combat terrorism] to take a similar derogation—but as yet, this step has not been taken. This erodes the standard.

How can the human rights community encourage the United States to take international law more seriously? I think one of the great strengths of the U.S. is a strong human rights infrastructure. I don't want to dwell on the situation of the U.S. in this regard, because I'm looking broadly at what different countries are doing. But it is true that the U.S. has a lead role, and it is scrutinized very carefully. If it doesn't uphold the standards very visibly, then that is noted by others who don't have the same strong tradition of rule of law and democratic values. But there are a significant number of other countries that are also being looked to for the way they are responding.

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