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.
Question: Should rich countries help poor countries and, if so, how?
Mary Robinson: I do very much believe that they should, it’s an important component and we mustn’t let that slip. There’s a certain amount of feeling that there's a financial crisis, can we really afford? We have to. Because we have a very connected world and what’s happening in other parts of the world will ultimately affect us unless you have social stability. So it is in the outcome document of this summit that there must be a recommitment to the 0.7% of GDP, which is actually not a great amount, given the potential of being able to have a safer and more balanced world.
We also know now that the way in which we’re living our lives, based on carbon, in the rich parts of the world, is undermining development of the poorest parts and there’s a commitment that was made in Copenhagen for an additional $30 billion a year over the next three years to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries. I want to see that money, as yet, I don’t see any new money being committed by countries. And even though there’s a financial crisis, we can actually find the ability and then we need governments of the poor countries to have a real sense of their responsibility to govern on behalf of their people.
Question: How can you convince people and governments to give during economic hard times?
Mary Robinson: I certainly very much understand the stress and the worry and the day-to-day concerns of people who have terrible mortgage problems, who are behind on their payments, who know that they have problems of school fees or university fees for the young people, etc. And it’s the same in the modern Ireland, we’re going through a very tough time in many countries in Europe and elsewhere. But we have to see the connections in our world. I mean, look at a country that has become what we call now a failed state, pretty well, Somalia. You have pirates out on the open seas from Somalia. You have a danger of terrorists being able to group where there is no law and order and finds ways of attacking elsewhere in the world. We are much more interconnected than we have ever been. It’s in our total interests to help to create middle classes in the developing countries. Then they will buy American goods, they will want to trade to the profit of everyone. And so I think it’s hard when you’re really wondering how you’re going to meet the commitments for next month and real worries about food, as that woman has said.
But in fact, I think any kind of sense of political leadership now has to move in the direction of understanding the interconnections between our world and we will not have peace and security if we do not have fairer balances. Because we’re not staying at the same population level, we’re going to go up from just under 7 billion people today to over 9 billion by 2050. That’s the largest increase in population we’ll ever have seen, and many of them are in very poor countries.
So for stability for our own generation, but particularly for our children and grandchildren, we have to have this sense of an interconnected world.
Question: How do we ensure that aid is actually being used to improve conditions in poor countries?
Mary Robinson: I still firmly believe we need to keep the commitments to development aid, but I also agree with an increasing number of African leaders and others who say, “We want to bring ourselves out of poverty. We want fairer trade rules. We want some subsidies removed that disadvantage us and when we’re trying to compete on cotton or sugar, etc.” And I think that we need to have more emphasis on access to energy for the poorest. One of the things that has helped poor countries greatly is the mobile phone. That was the private sector creating a market in the poor countries and the mobile phone, you it attracts markets, it transfers money, it does help surveillance, you can do education on it, it’s wonderful. But there are 1.6 billion people who have no access to electricity in our 21st century. That’s not acceptable.
If you give energy to the poorest, they will be able to be more productive and there is that sense that age shouldn’t be sort of, kind of, "We’ll look after your needs and not make the poor productive." Many of us think that we have to have much more emphasis on decent work as part of the whole approach. Including by the private sector, the companies that are operating, like Coca-Cola or other companies in developing countries, must more and more look at their whole value chain. How do we create more jobs? It’s jobs that take people out of poverty.
Question: How has Ireland weathered the global recession and debt crisis?
Mary Robinson: I’m very aware, because I’m actually moving back to Ireland, but these are really difficult times indeed. We’ve had the property bubble, we’ve had the misjudgments, to say the least, and the pain, and the real sense, at the moment, of anger about the unfairness and the role of the banks and the role of the property dealers who were most caught up in that bubble.
I’m very glad to be going back to Ireland, I’m really very happy about it, because I want to connect again with an Ireland that has to actually find the courage and the motivation moving forward to try and engage our very bright young people, I’m going to be linked with the two universities in Dublin and really anybody who’s working on climate issues and we’re going to be working to promote the idea of climate justice. I’d like Ireland to be the go-to place on climate justice, a bridge between the developed world going into the renewable energies and necessarily having measures of mitigation, but also the need to transfer good, green technologies, low-carbon technologies, to the poorest so that they can develop, they have a right to development. And Ireland has a very good history and tradition of development aid. It began with priests and nuns pioneering in the poorest parts of the world, and some of them are still there. And then very good NGO’s and Irish Aid itself, the government program, is very well regarded, and I know, in developing countries, because it’s very focused on the poorest and most vulnerable, in a very sustainable way. So I want to try and help to work with those on the ground to rekindle, I think, a sense of real pride and purpose in Ireland on this issue of climate justice.
Question: Will Ireland be able to regain the competitive strength of the Celtic Tiger days?
Mary Robinson: I’ve no doubt it will take a bit of time, but we have a great advantage of size, we have a very bright population, there’s a lot of research that has gone on, and there is a sense of community again. Maybe during the Celtic Tiger, people got very selfish, and now we have more sense of community. I’m hearing that Irish Gaelic word "meitheal," meaning linked to the other, the spirit of "meitheal," "meitheal" communities. People in small towns and villages actually looking after those who are most hard hit and, you know, there’s a human element coming back in, in a community sense and I do hope that we will continue to put great emphasis on education and on our young people because that’s the way we will turn around fastest. But I have every confidence. We’ve been in hard times before, we just need to accept that there was a foolishness and a stupidity and a selfishness and that some people are feeling pain who didn’t have that responsibility, which is provoking a lot of anger, and we need to be as far as possible in how we move forward.
Question: Are the days of the United States as the dominant global superpower coming to an end?
Mary Robinson: I think they have certainly changed and are no longer at all the way that the United States was perceived at the very beginning of this century; the year 2000, say. That’s reflected in the G20 and other developments. There should be a reform of the Security Council, the Security Council does not reflect the power balance and economic balance in our world today and so we need more urgent reform than we did because we recognize. At the same time, the United States is still a very, very powerful player. And I think there is a wisdom that the United States reengage again in these alliances and partnerships that are being spoken about by the Obama administration. I do believe that that’s the way for the United States to go.
Recorded September 21, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown