The Education of Mary Robinson

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

Well, many in this country are concerned with the current administration's aversion to anything that smells like an international obligation. There is the strong feeling that the language of human rights and humanitarian law is one that the U.S. either does not care to, or has not taken time to, fully embrace. I think that the focus in the U.S. is very much on the Constitution, the Supreme Court, the federal and state laws. There is a sense that it is a country that adheres to democratic values, due process, etc., so it is looked to from the outside in that regard, which is why if this is put into question, it's particularly worrying. But what is not adequately appreciated in the U.S.—and this is a challenge in a positive sense—is the rich jurisprudence and the framework of international human rights norms and standards. When we refer to this framework, we mean essentially six core instruments. The U.S. has ratified three of the six.

It has not ratified the covenants dealing with what we call economic, social, and cultural rights. The international human rights agenda is equally strong promoting civil and political rights—right to trial, freedom of expression, religious expression, etc.—as it is on economic, social, and cultural rights:right to food, education, health, and the right to development. There is a resistance to and cultural difficulty with that framing of human rights.

What I find encouraging is that development agencies in the U.S. are adopting a human rights approach, recognizing the whole range of rights. I hope this will work its way up through the system in the United States.

Once the U.S. pulled out of the racism conference, Durban fell off the public radar here, and a lot of commentators decided that for certain political reasons, it was a failure. First of all, I was very sad and disappointed that the United States and Israel did withdraw. I tried very hard to persuade them to be patient and to recognize that the difficult decisions of taking unacceptable language out would have to come at the very end. But time limits were set—I think there was a heated political climate in Washington itself—and for whatever reasons, therefore, it wasn't possible for the U.S. or Israel to remain to the end. I would be the first to say that there was an atmosphere in some of the discussions that had very worrying and unacceptable bases of anti-Semitism.

But I believed at all times that we would achieve what we did achieve—which was a remarkable declaration and program of action, which had purged out of it the kind of language that was causing all the difficulty. Durban achieved its objective. It yielded an extraordinarily important document for those who suffer discrimination and marginalization and racism, for indigenous peoples, for minorities such as the Roma in Europe, and those of African descent, and for issues that link poverty and racism. It's also the best text internationally on migrants.

I hope the U.S. can decouple the bad memories in relation to Durban from the importance in our world of having a strong anti-discrimination agenda. With the very difficult conflict in the Middle East, we're seeing synagogues being burned, we're seeing mosques being attacked, a rise in general in xenophobia. Arab countries, and those with large Islamic populations, are very worried about the attitude in the U.S. and European countries regarding students who want to get visas to study, [and] about those who have been living peacefully as good residents in a country who suddenly find themselves under suspicion or challenged in a way that didn't happen before. We need the Durban anti-discrimination agenda. The rest of the world views the racism conference as an extraordinarily positive achievement.

What about the reparations debate? Well, there was disappointment in some circles that it didn't go further on that. I think in fact it broke new ground; it recognized the importance of dealing with the past, of condemning slavery as a crime against humanity, which should have always been so. It may well be that the issue of reparations is one that should work its way through the courts of individual countries.

There is currently no way to compel countries to respect human rights. Won't this hurt the future of your commission? It's true there's no way to compel, but there are other ways to draw attention to human rights issues, problems, and concerns about gross violations. Some of it is peer pressure—countries don't like to be named and shamed before the commission. It's difficult to answer the question as you put it, except by the old cliché—are you looking at the glass half-full or half-empty? The commission can be faulted for being selective, for over-politicizing, for a lot of talk and no action, or it can be recognized as an important forum at the UN level which can build the normative base to develop a jurisprudence [around human rights].

You leave office in a couple of months. How will you reflect on the experience? It has been enormously enriching, and I am very humbled by those who work for human rights on the ground in such difficult circumstances. I go visit Colombia or East Timor or Afghanistan, but they stay there and work day in and day out. I also have a sense of having built a very effective office for human rights and putting, I hope, the stamp of integrity on the human rights agenda. This is recognized by all countries and all governments—that the office of the high commissioner for human rights is not politicized, we are not selective, and we operate an agenda that is broad-based.

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