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: My immediate family had a big impact. My father, being an old fashioned doctor, he knew how to listen. He slowed his own speech. He took his time even leaving a very poor cottage because the old lady wanted to come out to the gate with him, and she was on a . . . with a stick. And how he took the time. And it was important, and he reinforced the dignity and just didn’t prescribe pills, but was the true doctor. And I read a lot about, as I mentioned, Gandhi. I had read a lot about Nelson Mandela before I met him. I had the honor to be president at his inauguration when I went there as President of Ireland and we made a state visit. And we’ve become friends. And he’s somebody I hugely admire. Desmond Tutu, but also very grassroots people. And one woman leader who is also now an elder – Ella Bhatt. She founded SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, which I visited when I was president. It’s one of the largest women’s organizations in the world. And the work they have done to improve the lives and dignity of so many very poor women . . . Mohammad Yunis recently got the Nobel Prize. And indeed another man from Bangladesh who did a similar wonderful thing – founding _________. Mohammad founded the Grameen Bank, both working with very poor women. And _________ has done incredible training at various different levels. And I’ve been lucky enough, because of the work I’ve been doing, to meet the most extraordinary people, including very courageous human rights defenders. ________ and her sister ________ are both from Pakistan. They’re speaking out at the moment about what’s happening in Pakistan so courageously. And I feel a huge empathy, and I want to do whatever I can because they’re doing what they can. Recorded on: 7/25/07