Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and more former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate. Born Mary Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo (1944), the daughter of two physicians, she was educated at the University of Dublin (Trinity College), King's Inns Dublin and Harvard Law School to which she won a fellowship in 1967.
A committed European, she also served on the International Commission of Jurists, the Advisory Committee of Interights, and on expert European Community and Irish parliamentary committees. The recipient of numerous honours and awards throughout the world, Mary Robinson is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the American Philosophical Society and, since 2002, has been Honorary President of Oxfam International. A founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, she serves on many boards including the Vaccine Fund, and chairs the Irish Chamber Orchestra.
Currently based in New York, Mary Robinson is now leading Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative. Its mission is to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage.
Topic: Aid and Development
Mary Robinson: It’s very much rooted in the international agenda of human rights, particularly the universal declaration of human rights. But it’s not saying these are just words on paper. It’s saying, “How do we make this real and operational, particularly for the poorest and the most marginalized?” So now the focus of our work is on African countries mainly. Ireland is doing very well. I love going back there. I have grandchildren there. And it’s wonderful to see how prosperous modern Ireland is. And it’s a kind of hope for poor, developing countries because the change was very rapid. We work on health as a human right. We bring together ministers of health and try to support them in coping with the many interventions on health by ________ governments, by funds, by the World Health Organization, etc. I co-chair a high level body on the terrible brain drain of health workers out in Sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of South Asia, etc. – where there’s a high disease prevalence, poor health systems, but the doctors and nurses are leaving and coming to the United States and parts of Europe – and help to make that fairer. We work on decent work. One of the things about African countries is the populations are incredibly young. In many of them, well over 50% of the population is under 25, maybe under 20, and they have no jobs. So that’s a human rights issue.
Question: Does the First World have a responsibility to the Third World?
Mary Robinson: There are, I think, the two worlds, and more so now than at the very beginning of this century. In September 2000, there was a big meeting in the general assembly because it was the start of a new millennium. And the heads of state and government combined to draw up something for the millennium declaration, which was the source of the millennium development goals. And the goals to have those in poverty . . . to have every child have full primary education, no discrimination, the health goals, etc. And the eighth goal was that the rich countries should do more to help the poorest. And that meant living up to raising the amount of official development aid to 0.7%. The United States is way below that, although there’s a lot of voluntary commitment from the United States. Most European countries, including the modern Ireland, are fast-tracking to that 0.7%. But even so, we’re not living up to the G8 commitments. And what is astounding – and, to me, a terrible really indictment of our wisdom – is if you look at the military spending, it’s way over $900 billion a year. All we need for achieving the millennium development goals is about $100 billion. We would have a much more secure world. So it’s good, I think, that we have more voices and civil society groups. More voices of women . . . women leaders saying we need to change the dynamics. We have a terrible arms trade in small arms. Happily _______ Oxfam and a lot of NGOs have been calling for an arms trade treaty, and that has made a lot of progress. We may get one by about 2010. Maybe not all countries will subscribe; but the sale of arms, these AKA rifles, these guns that kill, they are the weapons of mass destruction, though we have to be worried about nuclear proliferation. And now we have climate change on top of all these issues.
Recorded on: 7/25/07