Few names are so closely connected with the cause of human rights as that of Mary Robinson. As former President of Ireland, she was ideally positioned for passionately and eloquently arguing the case for human rights around the world. Over five tumultuous years that included the tragic events of 9/11, she offered moral leadership and vision to the global human rights movement. This volume is a unique account in Robinson's own words of her campaigns as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
A Voice for Human Rights offers an edited collection of Robinson's public addresses, given between 1997 and 2002, when she served as High Commissioner. The book also provides the first in-depth account of the work of the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights. With a foreword by Kofi Annan and an afterword by Louise Arbour, the current High Commissioner for Human Rights, the book will be of interest to all concerned with international human rights, international relations, development, and politics.
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Mary Robinson is former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1997-2002, and former President of Ireland, 1990-97. She now leads Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative. Kevin Boyle is Professor of Law and Director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex. Kofi Annan of Ghana was the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations, from 1997 to 2004. Louise Arbour is current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She began her term in 2004.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General
The job of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is not for the faint of heart. At times even well-behaved governments view the occupant of the post as something of a nuisance, while those with something to hide will often denounce the High Commissioner's efforts as unwarranted attacks on national sovereignty. Civil society organizations, meanwhile, often expect miracles—as though the policies of hard-bitten dictators could be changed overnight by confrontational public comments, or for that matter by hidden persuasion, from an official whose power is entirely of the "soft" variety. And as if this wasn't enough, the High Commissioner must also run a sizable administration and navigate the political minefields associated with the Commission on Human Rights and its wide-ranging mechanisms. Equal parts lawyer and teacher, prosecutor and witness, hard talk and soft shoulder, the job, though little more than a decade old, is one of the most important in the entire United Nations system.
It was the need for such a forceful combination of qualities that led me, in 1997, to ask Mary Robinson to take it on. I was familiar with her distinguished career in Ireland as a lawyer and women's rights advocate. Her visits, as President of her country, to Somalia and Rwanda had coincided with my own efforts, in the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, to resolve the conflicts and alleviate the suffering in those countries. I was moved by her concern for the victims of violence. When I later sought someone to serve as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I remembered the eloquent compassion she had shown. Along with human rights advocates around the world, I was delighted when she agreed to take up this challenge.
My faith in her proved well founded. She brought to the task a leader's vision, a lawyer's precision, and a believer's conviction. Whether talking to Government officials or to the victims of violations, in large meetings or in more intimate settings, she was able to convey the very essence of human rights. She focused renewed attention on neglected issues such as economic and social rights and the right to development. She inspired her staff to new levels of accomplishment. And she never shied away from controversial issues. Hers was a clear voice for human rights where a clear voice was needed.
That singular voice resonates in the speeches and statements reproduced in this book. Steeped both in history and in the daily lives of today's oppressed, it reminds us why human rights matter and shows how a High Commissioner can make a difference. These speeches are her thoughts alone, in her own voice, but they challenge all of us to be less apathetic, more curious about the fate of others, and more engaged.
When Mary left the United Nations in 2002, she left the world a better place than she had found it. And her work for the cause of human rights continues. I hope this collection will reach the wide global audience it deserves.
* * * * *
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and an outsider to the United Nations, was its High Commissioner for Human Rights from September 1997 to September 2002, a period of five years. She was the second individual to be the "principal officer for human rights" in the United Nations. The first High Commissioner was José Ayala-Lasso, (1994-97), a United Nations diplomat, who left the post to return to Ecuador as Foreign Minister. The third, Sergio Vieira de Mello, a highly experienced and highly regarded United Nations career official, was appointed in September 2002. He had served but eleven months before he was killed in a bomb attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. In July 2004 a new High Commissioner, Louise Arbour, former Canadian Supreme Court judge and prosecutor at the United Nations Ad Hoc Tribunals in The Hague and Arusha, took up the post.
The post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is therefore little more than ten years old. Mary Robinson's five years in the position were its formative years to date. Hers became one of the most influential voices on human rights of the last decade. The purpose of this book, which brings together a range of her addresses, speeches, and statements along with linking commentary, is to provide a systematic record of, and context for, the ideas, policies, campaigns, and initiatives so energetically pursued over that period by Mary Robinson and the staff she inspired. Such a collection will serve to honor the signal contribution she made as High Commissioner to the cause of universal human rights. But it will also, it is hoped, serve as an introduction to the international human rights cause and how that cause continues to be pursued inside and outside the United Nations.
This book is not a biography. Nor is it an evaluation of Mary Robinson's term as High Commissioner. Rather, it is an effort to tell the story of her five years in this important position through her own words. The texts of statements made, speeches delivered, and messages sent are a powerful historical resource in seeking to offer such an account. They cannot, however, capture the entire story. As High Commissioner, Mary Robinson traveled continuously, and in her meetings with victims of human rights violations and with local human rights defenders in many countries, she delivered numerous memorable and empowering messages that were by their nature unscripted and unrecorded. She was at her best without a script, speaking from the heart. Nevertheless, even though the bias in this selection of texts is to the formal record, her deep commitment to making a difference in the lives of ordinary men, women, and children—often the victims of conflict and violence, discrimination and abuse—shines through.
Her words assembled in this book are not simply from the archives of what has passed. They also remain relevant to the present and the future. That is because the mission of securing universal respect for human rights is a long-term project. Steps that have been taken and milestones reached in that mission are never defunct history. They remain part of a story that stretches back to the founding of the United Nations and are part of the context for today's efforts to advance further. It is striking how frequently Mary Robinson's speeches invoke the past, understood in these terms. Eleanor Roosevelt's injunction that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 must be heard "in small places, close to home" was a favorite quotation, for example. The position of High Commissioner rests, as does much else in contemporary human rights work, on the Vienna Declaration and Plan of Action of the World Conference on Human Rights of June 1993. This high point of international consensus after the Cold War led to indispensable understandings on the nature of human rights and the legitimacy of international concern over their violation. The World Conference documents figured prominently and inevitably in many of Mary Robinson's speeches.
In broad terms, the role envisaged for the post on its creation by the General Assembly in 1993 entailed three responsibilities: to give moral leadership on human rights to the world; to offer expert advice and support to human rights institutions at the international and national levels; and to improve the overall effectiveness of United Nations human rights activities. Communication is vital to all of these tasks. They require a High Commissioner in addressing a wide range of audiences variously to inspire, explain, or educate; to advocate, shame, or condemn; to persuade, encourage, or cajole—in short, to communicate. Apart from the significant but invisible role of "quiet diplomacy," such messages were conveyed through the written or spoken word; in media interviews, press releases, and video messages; on the OHCHR Web site or in publications; and at official and informal meetings, symbolic ceremonies, conferences, and lectures all over the world. Mary Robinson, as High Commissioner, energetically and skillfully used all such means and occasions to make human rights more visible. The texts gathered in this book reflect her passionate insistence that international human rights standards must be taken seriously by all. Whatever the occasion, formal or informal, her words convey that passion. They also convey what she saw as her primary mission to be a voice for the victims of human rights abuses.
The possibility of real change requires the coincidence of a person and particular historical circumstances. And so it proved in respect of Mary Robinson's five years as High Commissioner. Her earlier career had prepared her well for the post and she took up the position at a time when a new reforming Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, was set to bring human rights into the center of what the United Nations should stand for.
Born on 21 May 1944, Mary Robinson had an exceptional public presence in Ireland before taking up her United Nations position. This encompassed a career in law, the academy, politics, and social activism that incorporated an international outlook and a belief in human rights from the outset. By the age of twenty-five she had gained a law degree at Trinity College Dublin and a masters in law from Harvard. In 1969 she was appointed as the youngest professor of law at Trinity College, and she was later to become its Chancellor, the first woman to do so since the Tudor monarch Elizabeth I.
Her espousal of women's rights and civil rights issues in the Irish and European courts, her involvement with social movements, and her twenty campaigning years as a senator in the Irish Parliament demonstrated a commitment to human rights activism that continued during her seven years as Ireland's elected President, 1990-97. The 1990s are now referred to in Ireland as the "Robinson years," a time of rapid economic improvement and movement toward a more honest and socially inclusive society. Mary Robinson was both the symbol of and a key influence on the shaping of present-day Ireland. Her concerns as President were not confined to Ireland. She led public opinion in looking out both to the Irish diaspora and to the stark contrasts in life chances between developing and developed worlds. Her visit as head of state to Somalia in 1992 and her personal campaign to alleviate famine there, along with her presence in Rwanda soon after the genocide of 1994, helped focus not only Irish but also world attention on collective responsibility for these appalling and avoidable tragedies.
When appointed High Commissioner by the General Assembly in 1997 on the recommendation of Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson was recognized throughout the world as an Irish leader of integrity and as an advocate and activist for global social justice and human rights. Her appointment was welcomed by many governments and was greeted with open delight by human rights and development groups worldwide. They hoped that her drive and passion combined with her visibility and status could make the post of High Commissioner a force to advance the UN's faltering commitment to the defense of human rights.
The goodwill, support, and hopes of the world's grassroots were to drive Mary Robinson in her new role. But she was also sensitive to the danger of dashing expectations. She could and did speak out over human rights abuses. But the limits of moral authority in the world were also constantly brought home to her. So also were the constraints imposed on her own freedom of action as an international official in the world of competing states and competing priorities that is the United Nations. She had no prior experience working in a large organization, and the bureaucratic procedures of a complex international body such as the United Nations were experienced first with shock and then with frustration.
The potential of the United Nations to make a difference she never doubted, but impatience with the pace of progress and the inadequacy of the funds committed to human rights caused her, as her first four-year term came to an end, to announce that she would not seek a second term. She told the Commission on Human Rights that she believed she could "achieve more outside the constraints that a multilateral organization inevitably imposes." The announcement caused a furor among many governments and human rights organizations who appealed to her to stay. At the request of Kofi Annan she agreed to continue as High Commissioner for a further year, sensitive to his point that it was short notice to find a qualified successor.
The additional year was not one of marking time. It included the enormous task of leading the World Conference against Racism. It also included the epochal event of "9/11" in the United States. Her contributions to the World Conference and her concerns for global human rights in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States are recorded in this book.
The origins of the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights can be traced to the period of the drafting of the International Bill of Human Rights. It had been championed for many years by John Humphrey, the first United Nations permanent secretary for human rights. The Commission on Human Rights endorsed the idea of a High Commissioner as early as 1967. It was also endorsed at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. Following the Vienna Conference, in December 1993, the General Assembly established the position of High Commissioner for Human Rights along with an office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR). The High Commissioner would have the rank of Under-Secretary General and be described as the "United Nations official with principal responsibility for United Nations human rights activities." The first High Commissioner, José Ayala-Lasso, who had chaired the working group that hammered out the resolution, took up his duties in April 1994.
The drafting of the General Assembly resolution that contains the job description of the post resulted in consensus. But one consequence was that each regional grouping in the United Nations inserted its own wish list of what a High Commissioner should do. As a result, the particulars of the post proposed a vast list of potential responsibilities. Mary Robinson's task on her appointment was to make headway in addressing all of these while seeking to establish priorities among them.
The resolution's main thrust was to give a greater prominence to United Nations objectives in the promotion and protection of human rights in the post-Cold War world. Human rights activities had developed ad hoc in response to particular pressures and events over many years. The hope was that the new position of High Commissioner, located within the United Nations Secretariat, could shape the different institutions and procedures into a coherent and more effective program that would make a difference to the millions whose rights were violated on a daily basis.
The Kofi Annan Reforms and "Mainstreaming"
The possibilities of creating such coherence were significantly boosted by Kofi Annan's election as Secretary General in 1997 and his sweeping program of reform of the UN Secretariat.10 Human rights were to be a priority and integrated or "mainstreamed" into all the activities of the United Nations, in particular the work of the four proposed Executive Committees responsible for all programs. The High Commissioner for Human Rights was to be tasked with leading the new mainstreaming policy. Mary Robinson's first major address after her ap...
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