Mary Robinson

This Teaching Tolerance article profiles Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first woman president and U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights.
Learning for Justice Staff
Grade Level

Mary Robinson, lawyer, human rights activist and feminist, redefined the scope of two important positions. Robinson was elected the first woman president of Ireland in 1990, serving until 1997. She took up the post of United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights from 1997 to 2002.
Born in 1944, Robinson became a professor of law at Trinity College in Dublin at the age of 25, the youngest person to ever hold that position.
Serving in the Irish Parliament from 1969 to 1989, Robinson became an expert in European human rights law. In parliament she worked on social issues that the country had not been able to deal with before: divorce (which was outlawed) and the rights of Irish women to contraception. Robinson championed these rights through a long series of legislative measures that eventually came to fruition during her tenure as president.
While the president is the only individual elected by national popular vote in Ireland, it is a position with few political tasks or powers. The president has no executive power, and, in fact, must stay out of politics, both nationally and internationally.
But when Robinson won the post, she declared “the hand that rocks the cradle can rock the system.” It was a victory for Irish women. Mary Robinson turned the characteristics of the Irish presidency into assets: “The constraints bring a kind of moral authority, because when people vote they know that you’re not going to govern. … In this office you can be a unifying force, a president for all the people, in touch with different views.” On the national level, Robinson used her role to expand people’s awareness of social issues, inviting people from all segments of society to her offices, and working for a solution to the problems in Northern Ireland.
Robinson also traveled extensively, conveying Ireland’s concern to trouble spots and using her role to bear witness to human suffering. She visited Rwanda three times after the genocide of 1994, as well as other developing countries, including Somalia. Through these travels Robinson expanded her own understanding of global human rights issues. In her speeches she increased world awareness of human rights abuse: “Witness is neither so easy nor so forthcoming as might be expected. We turn away so often. ... Each of us has an individual responsibility. To inform ourselves. To care. To respond.”
In September 1997, Mary Robinson resigned as president of Ireland to accept the post of U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. This office is a recent one, created in 1993 with the idea that human rights should be more central to the work of the U.N. The single High Commissioner before Robinson worked on consolidating all of the human rights agencies within the U.N.
These structural changes were part of a massive reorganization of the U.N., spearheaded by Secretary-General Annan. Over the years, the organization had become overblown and chaotic, with too many overlapping departments. In the newly organized U.N., every office and agency belongs to one of four executive committees: peace and security, humanitarian affairs, economic and social issues, and development operations. Instead of making human rights a fifth department, the U.N. High Commissioner is to be a member of each of the four. In this way, Annan and Robinson envisioned that human rights would become more central to every type of project done within the U.N.
Under the leadership of Robinson, the U.N. Human Rights Center in Geneva, Switzerland, employs 150 people. There are also 12 field offices throughout the world employing 250 observers. The observers visit countries with human rights problems and report back to the U.N. However, the U.N. does not have any genuine power to enforce human rights; moral pressures are brought to bear through persuasion, public opinion and occasional economic sanctions.
The legal basis for human rights is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The declaration, which built upon the U.N. Charter and other documents, was itself developed further in the 1960s and 1970s. The declaration asserts that all people have political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to equal opportunity, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Robinson says that the legal basis for “international human rights standards are in place. The task for us all ... will be to implement them.”
Nonetheless, Robinson does not feel that the 50-year anniversary of the passing of the declaration in 1998 is a cause for celebration, claiming, “So much effort, money and hopes have produced such modest results.” As proof, she points to discrimination, extreme poverty in many countries, the feminization of poverty, and recent occurrences of genocide.
Some developing nations have criticized the appointment of Robinson to the post, feeling that only a person from a non-Western nation can understand their problems. Robinson answers that her own country, Ireland, has a history of exploitation, poverty, violence and famine which led to migration of the Irish people. The features of this history are similar to those of many developing countries today.
A further problem is that what “human rights” means is interpreted differently in different parts of the world, depending on political system, religion and economic level. Robinson has found that “the gap in perceptions of what we mean by human rights is even wider than I had thought.” She sees one of her tasks to be the narrowing of this gap and coming closer to a shared international idea of what human rights should be.
Making it clear that she does not intend to impose Western values on non-Western nations, Robinson has promised that there will be open discussion of different value systems. For example, the Taliban, a Muslim fundamentalist party that holds power in Afghanistan, is under strong criticism for its treatment of women, who are no longer allowed to work or to get higher education. Robinson has said that this problem should be approached from within the Muslim community. Robinson vowed, “I intend to try to get more informed Islamic legal thinking. ... We’re not going to make real progress for women in Afghanistan unless we can do it within their culture.”
Another area of concern for Robinson is the attitude toward human rights within the U.N. itself. U.N. staff must be reeducated as to how human rights is an intrinsic part of all that the U.N. does. For example, people trying to solve international confrontations need to also work for human rights because “today’s human rights violations are the causes of tomorrow’s conflicts.”
Robinson considers economic and social rights as important as civil and political ones. She feels that staff working in development agencies may lose sight of the real people they serve because these economic agencies tend to measure their success or failure through macroeconomic indicators. Robinson reminds the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that their mission is to promote the rights of people at the local level “to security, dignity, economic opportunity and a better life for their children.”
Mary Robinson had an enormous task before her as a global leader. However, her broad vision, along with her understanding of the grassroots level, helped to advocate for global recommitments to human rights as central to solving the world’s challenges of tomorrow.
Time Line: Human Rights Documents
1945 United Nations Charter. It “determined to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”
1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It included new items which had not been guaranteed in previous documents: the right to social security, right to work, right to education, right to participate in the cultural life of the community, and right to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
1993 Vienna Declaration, World Conference on Human Rights. Expanded and reaffirmed concepts of human rights: the rights of the most vulnerable groups, which include “women, minorities, indigenous people, children, persons with disabilities, refugees, migrant workers and prisoners,” must be protected. Now that this document exists, it can be used by women to show that they have rights under international law.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Robinson says that the president of Ireland can be a “unifying force, a president for all the people, in touch with different views.” Why is this possible? How did she try to embody this ideal?
    The president can function in this way because he (or she) has no executive power. Since he is not governing, he is not responsible to any political party or other agency. As president, she tried to raise awareness of social issues at home and human suffering abroad.
  2. Question
    In what ways was the human rights department different from the other departments within the United Nations?
    It was meant to be more overarching—to have a place within each of the four established committees and departments—given that human rights should be “more central to every type of project done within the U.N.”
  3. Question
    What are some of the obstacles Robinson faced during her appointment as the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights?
    1. Developing countries didn’t believe she could understand their problems.
    2. Human rights are interpreted differently in different countries and cultures.
    3. The attitude toward human rights within the U.N. is complicated.
Reveal Answers
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