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: Will governments and non-profits lead the drive towards a more sustainable global economy or is that the role of the private sector?
Mary Robinson: I think it’s the role for partnerships in the 21st century and the good news is, that there’s much more willingness to partner now between governments, often a UN agency like Unicef and WHO if it’s health issues, and businesses that are progressive, and NGO’s, the **** firms, the Care’s, the Mercy Corps, the Irish Concerns, they’re all more than willing now to be in innovative partnerships, then you have the role of the foundations and the Rockefeller, Gaits, and the big players who have a big role to play.
And my interest in the work we’ve been doing is to constantly capacity build local civil society groups, NGOs locally, because they’re the sustainable ones, they’re the ones that carry on in the future.
Question: How can we align people, planet, and profits?
Mary Robinson: I actually think that having a rounded approach in a corporation that takes into account human rights responsibilities is part of corporate sustainability, not part of corporate social responsibility, as if it’s a sort of public relations social add-on. And we work very closely with the special representative of the Secretary General on business and human rights, Professor John Ruggie, and he is drafting guidelines now and asked to do that by the Human Rights Council to explain what he means when he recommended to the council, and they accepted, that all corporations have a responsibility to respect all human rights. And he’s saying, “It’s not just do no harm and don’t think about it, it’s a due diligence responsibility, you must know what your company is doing and what your supply chain is doing.” Are you having child labor or terrible conditions of labor and no health and safety? Are you depleting the habitat of indigenous peoples, are you using military to protect your corporation in a developing country and they’re using terrible human rights abuses against the local population? These are all now very clear responsibilities of corporations.
But on the positive side, more and more companies are saying, “We understand that if we’re going to be trading in the future in countries that are still trying to become more developed, it’s in our interests to be involved as good, corporate citizens and it’s part of our sustainability.” And that’s where I think you have the alignment. There is now a new commission on global sustainability, that as a number of people, **** and others on it, who will be recommending to the Secretary General, a kind of global balance for sustainability in our world. And I’m sure it will include a large segment on corporate sustainability.
Recorded September 21, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown