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: Beyond a simple title, how would you describe what you do for a living?
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.
Recorded on: 07/25/07