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2004 Annual Meeting . . . Public Sociologies

Former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, A Human Rights Voice That Will Not Be Silenced

The first article in a series highlighting prominent public intellectuals presenting at ASA’s 2004 Annual Meeting in San Francisco

by Mona Younis, International Human Rights Funders Group

When Mary Robinson, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, addresses the 2004 meeting of the ASA in San Francisco, members will understand why the human rights community considered her early departure from the post both unfortunate and predictable. Despite being credited for “putting human rights on the map” by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and lauded for the “remarkable progress” she had achieved in making human rights “a central issue in all societies,” a second term as high commissioner was cut short in 2002. Human rights defenders explained the campaign against Mary Robinson by pointing to her effectiveness in amplifying the voices of the unheard and the demand that governments meet their legally binding human rights obligations.

She brought remarkable legal and political expertise to the Office of the High Commissioner. In 1969, at the age of 25, she became the youngest professor of law ever to be appointed at Dublin University’s Trinity College and was elected to the Senate that same year. Over the next two decades, she revealed herself to be a tenacious and fearless defender of human rights, championing women’s human rights and campaigning for the liberalization of Ireland’s laws prohibiting divorce and abortions. Later, as President of Ireland (1990-1997), she achieved international standing by, among other things, becoming the first head of state to visit famine-ravaged Somalia and post-genocide Rwanda. This presaged the perspective she would carry to the post of High Commissioner, one that recognized the indivisibility of human rights such as the right to life and the right to food. Those who approved Ms. Robinson’s initial appointment in 1997 as only the second high commissioner for human rights should have known that she would seek nothing less than the enforcement of international human rights laws.

But, then, it was easy to minimize the potential of the woefully under-funded and highly politicized human rights office wedged inside the U.N. bureaucracy. In her five years in office, Ms. Robinson transformed the institution by extending it into the real world, where the victims and perpetrators were to be found, and encouraging the direct participation of civil society in the deliberations and operations of the human rights agency back in Geneva. Indeed, noting that the Human Rights Commissioner “has no big stick except the appeal to the moral conscience of the world,” she enlisted non-governmental organizations in the task of monitoring governments’ compliance with international human rights laws that required them to “respect,” “protect,” and “fulfill” the human rights of every person within their borders.

Mary Robinson contributed to the change in the way we think of human rights without changing a single word in any document. She reminded the world that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, covenants, specialized conventions and treaties comprise a body of law that codify governments’ obligations and give ordinary citizens “a vocabulary of complaint and inspiration,” and that “[f]air trial and the right of participatory and representative government sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the right to work, to equal pay for equal work, and the right to education.” The fact that she addressed the full spectrum of human rights as the Declaration’s original framers had intended drew the attention of activists in developing countries long wary of the West’s exclusive focus on freedom of information, fair elections, and other civil and political rights, while their communities struggled to survive violations to their rights to health, a living wage, housing, and other economic, social and cultural rights.

Bifurcation of Rights

The separation of human rights into civil and political, on the one hand, and economic, social, and cultural, on the other, should never have happened. When the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948, a U.N. committee was assigned the task of presenting an International Bill of Rights. The project was envisioned to take one year; instead it took 19, as it fell hostage to Cold War rivalries. Rather than a single document, two covenants were presented to end the deadlock. Predictably, some Western governments ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which covered rights such as due process, elections, information and expression, and ignored the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which covered their obligations in the areas of food, housing, health, jobs, and the like. Similarly, socialist bloc countries took the opposite course of dismissing civil and political rights, favoring the Covenant that protected economic, social, and cultural rights.

The potential to advance human rights in practice was hampered by this artificial division. Communities that seek to secure economic rights need civil and political rights protections like freedom of association, and activists that aspire to civil and political rights like free and fair elections need to address their communities’ health and well being. This notion of the “indivisibility” and “interdependence” of human rights is as old as the Universal Declaration, but it took Mary Robinson using her office and traveling to 60 countries to call peoples’ and governments’ attention to it. Under her leadership, human rights ceased to be a tool powerful governments wielded against weak countries for political purposes. At the same time, she spoke out against the growth of paramilitary forces in Colombia, the “climate of impunity” in Zimbabwe, mounting atrocities in Algeria, trafficking of women and children in Cambodia, and more. She held all governments equally accountable to the internationally recognized and legally enforceable standards.

Challenging Power

This challenged U.S. exceptionalism and placed Ms. Robinson on a collision course with Washington. Mary Robinson was outspoken in her criticism of U.S. efforts to undermine the International Criminal Court, its lack of regard for civilian casualties in the war waged in Afghanistan, and its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. She even dared to voice criticism of “internal” U.S. matters like the death penalty—a clear violation of international human rights norms. While condemning the horrible events of September 11, 2001, as a crime against humanity, and acknowledging the need to act to counter terrorism, she cautioned that in the ‘war on terror’ “[s]ome of the recipients of increased U.S. military aid are armed forces that have committed grave violations of human rights, and which the U.S. state department itself has identified as being amongst the worst human rights violators.” To the consternation of many governments, she proceeded with the controversial World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, which spotlighted governments’ responsibilities toward minorities and indigenous peoples like the Dalits in India and Palestinians under Israel’s occupation, and the demands for restitution for slavery in the United States and Europe. She was equally vocal about violations carried out by other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, condemning Russia’s handling of the war in Chechnya and China’s actions in Tibet and its treatment of dissidents. As Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch noted, “Mary Robinson paid a price for her willingness to stand up to powerful governments that violate human rights.”

Today, as director of the Ethical Globalization Initiative, Mary Robinson is carrying human rights advocacy even deeper into the world, working to see that corporations too adhere to the human rights standards that all human beings require to live in dignity and to fulfill their potential. It is, therefore, most fitting that ASA members will hear Ms. Robinson at a meeting devoted to public sociology. She undoubtedly will challenge us to contribute our skills to the growing movement to hold governments and other duty bearers accountable. In a panel on “Human Rights as Public Sociology” that will be moderated by Bill Gamson, Boston College, ASA members will have the opportunity to hear how five sociologists—a human rights scholar from Canada, a member of Peru’s truth commission, a policy analyst from Geneva, a methodologist in the United States, and a professor from Uganda—are meeting that challenge. That governments should meet their duties to “respect,” “protect,” and “fulfill” human rights is not a utopian dream, it is international human rights law. Mary Robinson has brought the world many steps closer to seeing that it becomes reality.