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 Voiceabout 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.

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.

It is frustrating to work within a bureaucracy that's mini-managed, under-resourced, and full of regulations that hamper effectiveness. It requires a lot of patience, and I'm not the most patient person in the world. I haven't suffered from a frustration about being politically bullied, because I will not be bullied. I've always stood up to bullies, and I'm prepared to pay the price of taking stands that may not be popular or politically in my best interests. But I came into this job not to keep a job, but to do a job.

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