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: Where do human rights come from?
Mary Robinson: It's an old idea, but the modern roots are in the French Constitution, the Constitution of the United States. But from an international point of view, the great document is the universal declaration of human rights. And that was the work of a small team of lawyers who came from China, the Netherlands, from France, from Canada under the chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt. At the time she was already the widow of President Roosevelt. And she was quite bossy. She wasn’t herself a lawyer, but she bossed this team of eminent lawyers to write it in straightforward, simple language. There are only 30 articles. It’s quite short. But the first article sums it all up. It says “All human beings are born free and equal in indignity and rights.” And that’s very interesting that dignity comes before rights. That sense of identity, of self-worth; the fact that if somebody is sleeping in a cardboard box in a doorway, the worst thing for them is if we don’t see them. It’s that utter self, you know, elimination. And the Universal Declaration also talks of Article 29, the second to last article, about duties to the community. It’s like the ________ Principles. Or indeed, most great religions talk about that we are connected with each other, that we should reach out to community. It’s very important at the moment that we’re coming up to the 60th anniversary of when that was adopted in Paris on the 10th of December 1948. So part of my work in realizing rights, and more recently, since I’ve become an elder of Nelson Mandela and ________, the elders have adopted the Declaration of the Universal Human Rights as part of our framing constitution. And we’re going to be trying to get people to reread it, to think about it, and to say “This is the birthright of children.” It includes rights to food, and safe water, and health, and education. So we need to get on with these millennial development goals. It’s a whole framing of values which is universal. I say we just wouldn’t get as good a text today if we brought people together to write it. We would be so compromised by all the things that have happened, including the emphasis on security, the post 9/11 world, the ideological divide; but we don’t have to re-write it because every government has accepted it. They just haven’t implemented it.