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. 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.
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.
PW: How hard was it to become the first female president of Ireland?
MR: I was considered the candidate who had no hope of winning. 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. People seemed to be interested in what I was saying and against the odds, I won.
PW: What challenges did you face after winning the election?
MR: Initially it was a challenge. At one stage the then prime minister Charles Haughey came to see me with a senior counsel opinion that I was overdoing things. As a constitutional lawyer I was able to show 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 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 there to support the local communities in Catholic, republican West Belfast.
PW: What were the most difficult challenges you faced as human rights commissioner?
MR: 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. I also gave credit to China on progress on economic and social rights. 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: 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. 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.
PW: You are visiting Australia again for HRIZON. What is your own knowledge of, and experiences with, Australia?
MR: 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.