AHRI national president Peter Wilson talks to former Irish president Mary Robinson about her journey from law student to global human-rights advocate.
Peter Wilson: You have spoken about your experiences growing up in the poorer parts in the west of Ireland, when you accompanied your father, a doctor, on patient visits. You say you learnt the skills of patience, care and listening from him, and that these served you well in later life. Who else were significant mentors in your life?
Mary Robinson: My father wasn’t the only key influence while growing up. My mother was a very warm, gregarious, social person who should have been the politician in the family. She remembered everybody’s names and knew a lot about them. She was involved in everything, not just in our home town.
When I accompanied her to Dublin as a teenager it used to drive me mad that we could never walk down a street because there were so many people she wanted to talk to or wanted to talk to her. There was also my grandfather, a retired lawyer with a great sense of social justice. I also come from a long line of reverend mothers – so that had an influence.
When I was about to graduate from Trinity College, I was working at a conference in The Hague and met one of the US representatives Arthur von Mehren, [Harvard Law School professor]. He asked what I was going to do when I graduated and I said that I would like to go on to graduate work, probably at Oxford or Cambridge, if I could get in. He suggested Harvard and I remember saying, ‘Do Harvard take women?’ This was in 1967 – and he said, “Oh yes, the first woman graduated from Harvard in 1964”. So when I went to Harvard he was very supportive. Not a close mentor, but he became a friend.
PW: How hard was it to become the first female president of Ireland?
MR: When I ran for the presidency I wasn’t trying to be like a man, but to use strengths that women have. I did it with confidence and I’ve been very interested in women’s leadership from that point onwards. I was considered the candidate who had no hope of winning. Had I been male I would have been in the same situation. The smallest party nominated me, and it was known that the largest party was going to nominate the deputy prime minister. He was a shoo-in; he was a popular guy, a well-known politician and therefore there was no contest.
I accepted the nomination, not because I expected to win but because I could make the case for a much more active role for a directly elected non-executive president. Under the constitution it was really interesting to make that argument and I did so in the media and in local communities around the country. And people seemed to be interested in what I was saying and so, against the odds, I won.
PW: What challenges did you face after winning the election?
MR: Initially it was a challenge to put in place the active and dynamic presidency that I had promised the Irish people. At one stage the then prime minister Charles Haughey came to see me with a senior counsel opinion that I was overdoing things. But as a constitutional lawyer I was able to show that all my efforts were compatible with the constitution. That carved out the role of the Irish president and my successors have continued to fulfil that role.
I wanted to, as president, play a role in international human rights. I was the first head of state to visit Somalia in 1992 and draw attention to the fighting warlords who were preventing food getting to the people who were starving. I went to Rwanda after the genocide and was the first head of state to draw attention to the situation globally.
In 1993 I visited Buckingham Palace at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth and had tea with her. In 1996 I subsequently paid an official visit. These visits were the beginning of relations that culminated in a very successful state visit by Queen Elizabeth last year and cemented relations between the two countries.
I also went to Belfast and shook Gerry Adams’ hand. I was excoriated for that, but I was really there to support the local communities in Catholic, republican West Belfast. British Protestant Northern Ireland and the south were both not paying enough attention to the situation. So that too was a moment.
PW: What were the most difficult challenges you faced as human rights commissioner?
MR: It was a great honour, but it was a difficult role from beginning to end. My predecessor resigned, after just a year, because the job was so hard. The office was underfunded and staff were demoralised, but it was dealing with some of the key issues and we continued to do so.
I established an interesting relationship with China. I was one of the most outspoken voices in the UN about how China was in breach of its human-rights obligations, in relation to how it treated political dissent, Tibet, the Falun Gong and so on. But I also gave credit to China on the progress it was making on economic and social rights. I wanted to work with the Chinese government in a less politicised way, because as far as I was concerned I was trying to work on behalf of the Chinese people. That was my role – I was a high commissioner who tried to be with the victims of violation. For example, I was in Chechnya when Grozny was being bombed, in East Timor at a difficult time and in parts of Africa where there were human rights violations, in Sierra Leone, for example.
PW: You are now a member of The Elders, established by Nelson Mandela, and chaired by another great world leader – Archbishop Desmond Tutu. How do you choose issues and how do you assess your impact so far?
MR: It’s a very close conversation, based on detailed preparation carried out by the Elders team in the London office. In some cases we decide we will continue work on a particular situation. In others it’s whether we will embark on a broader idea, such as supporting a global partnership on child marriage, which is now operating under the broad banner of ‘girls not brides’.
I think it’s harder to assess our impact, there’s no silver bullet because of ongoing situations in countries. We are coming up to our fifth anniversary in July, where we will be taking stock and looking at the next five years and examining whether we are fulfilling his vision for this group, and the mandate he has given us to reach out to those who are marginalised, especially young people.
PW: As UN high commissioner, you spoke of how fundamentalist religious views can get in the way of human rights and showing love to others. Where have you encountered this dilemma and what have been the strategies you have used to overcome it, perhaps in the area of child marriage?
MR: We didn’t start by focusing on child marriage. We began with the way that all too often religion and tradition can be distorted to subjugate women and girls as second-class citizens. Jimmy Carter followed up on this at the World Council of Churches, speaking about the need for the churches to be less paternalistic. Then we decided to take on child marriage as a practical application of this idea.
I have to say, though, that in fairness most churches – even at a local level – don’t support child marriage. We found this at local levels in Ethiopia and India where there is state and local support for tackling child marriage.
Child marriage is really the product of poverty and fear that the young adolescent girl will become sexually active and destroy the honour of the family. For centuries there’s been a belief that girls need to be married off early because the dowry is larger if they are older. What the Elders have done on the ground is to encourage those working on the issues, which includes the governments of those countries.
PW: You are visiting Australia again for HRIZON. What is your own knowledge of, and experiences with, Australia?
MR: I have visited a few times, including a state visit, but not recently. When I was on the state visit we started in Perth and my convoy was in the Kings Park. My private secretary, who had emerged from car number five or six, met a jogger who asked, “What’s all the excitement?” My secretary, with great pride, said, “It’s the President of Ireland”. The jogger turned and said, “Oh, which one’s he?” At the end of my state visit I think they all knew I was a woman.
This article was first published in the June edition of HRmonthly.