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Vol. LXII, No. 45
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
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Former President of Ireland, UN Leader Mary Robinson Acclaims Human Rights

Ellen Gilbert

The group of Elders Mary Robinson belongs to has nothing to do with the limitations of old age. In fact, she probably logs more air miles in a week than most people do in a lifetime as she travels to the far corners of the world speaking out about human rights.

At a recent public lecture at the Institute for Advanced Study, Ms. Robinson spoke about her efforts on behalf of the Elders, the group of world leaders called together by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu to help resolve global conflict, and her wide-ranging experiences as the former president of Ireland, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and founder of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative.

While the title of Ms. Robinson’s talk was forward-looking — “Human Rights Challenges in the Next Decade” — the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted and proclaimed by the U.N. General Assembly in December of 1948, was very much on her mind. Like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who flashed the copy of the Constitution she carries with her at her recent talk in Princeton, Ms. Robinson keeps a copy of the Universal Declaration close at hand. “It’s the most translated document in world,” She said, adding that with 236 translations to date, it had made the Guiness Book of Records, something that particularly satisfied her Irish sensibilities.

“About four billion people in the world don’t have access to justice,” she noted. Effecting change is the slow and difficult business of the many agencies and projects in which she participates, including the World Justice Project, International Oxfam (where she has been Honorary President since 2002), and a forthcoming initiative tentatively called “Protecting Dignity: An Agenda for Human Rights” that will be announced in Geneva on December 5.

Ms. Robinson described the World Justice Project as an effort to return to human rights standards through a joint agreement on “steps that can be taken in emergency situations. Torture is never sanctioned,” she added. There are currently eight countries participating in the project; she is hoping that in a year’s time there will be fifty.

After traveling to New York City in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Ms. Robinson said that she “realized immediately that this event was going to have a devastating effect on human rights.” Recognized as a crime against humanity by the U.N., the attacks would have obliged all governments to bring the perpetrators to justice. It was “worrisome,” she went on, that the U.S.’s reaction was to declare a “war on terror,” since the perception of being at war tends to “lower human rights considerations.” She was glad, she noted, that the “lonely voices” who initially spoke out against legislation like the Patriot Act had now become a “a groundswell” from those who “understand the importance of the rule of law.” Observing that “climate change is easier to assess than improvements in human rights,” Ms. Robinson commented on the difficulty of measuring progress in government, business, and community human rights practices. 

Ms. Robinson expressed the hope that someday there will be a World Human Rights Court. In the meantime, the Universal Declaration continues to be a useful “normative framework.”


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