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: What inspires you?
Mary Robinson: When I was working as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I had to go to some of the most difficult places of conflict – to ________ and Chechnya; to East Timor after the terrible killings there; and Sierra Leone where children and pregnant women have arms and legs chopped off . . . an elderly man with no hands trying to shave. I have these images just about an inch below the surface of my mind. I can recall them at any time. They’re there. I can never get rid of them. And in a way, they’re also part of why I can speak about issues with a certain empathy of understanding, because I have seen. When I would come back from some of the worst visits, some of my colleagues would say, “Why are you sounding not exactly optimistic, but you’re saying, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s do that.’” And I think it’s a psychological characteristic that I’m happy I have. I’d like to see maybe that the glass isn’t half full; but if it’s a tiny bit full, what can you do to make it more full? And I do believe – and it’s part of my philosophy – that everyone can make a difference. That’s what happens. Small groups come together. A group of lawyers that gave us the Universal Declaration. Mahatma Gandhi, ________ himself, figures who have stood out. Writers, poets and thinkers have changed our world because they have reminded us of our humanity; reminded us of our dignity and worth. And so that’s, I think, very much what motivates me. I’m very lucky. I wake up every morning full of enthusiasm for what I can do during the day. And I have met some absolutely fantastic people, very often at grassroots – very poor people making a huge difference in their lives. I saw them recently in Nairobi with AIDS orphans and with women who are possible trying to get over so many discriminatory barriers – strong, resourceful women, but without resources. So getting them the resources is part of . . . and helping them to do much more. They’re already on the road.
Recorded on: 7/25/07