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: Why is climate change a human rights issue as much as an environmental one?
Mary Robinson: I must say, I’ve come to it very much as a human rights issue because when I’ve been in African countries during my current work on health, on decent work, on women’s leadership, people would sort of change the subject and say, “But, what can we do, we’ve no seasons anymore? And our farming is destroyed, farmers don’t know when to sow, it’s undermining everything.” And then I realized that in fact, the reality is that our carbon-based lifestyles, creating these greenhouse gas emissions are already affecting the poorest. And in a way I think that’s not the way we hear about climate change. We hear it from scientists and environmentalists and economists and they have important things to say, but they’re talking statistics and a polar bear on a melting ice flow and glaciers melting, because oh, yes, that’s going to be a problem in the future. For many, many poor people, it’s a problem now and it’s undermining their poor life chances and it could lead to conflict when you have water stress, when you’ve people migrating. They estimate that by 2050, we could have more than 200 million environmental climate change migrants who’ve had to move, either within their countries, or very often across borders, many of them will want to come to Europe, they’ll want to come from, you know, South America more to the United States if they find arid conditions where they can’t continue to where they live, or they’re flooded. And these are unfortunately the threats.
So we need, again, a developmental approach. We need, in fact, to ensure that we mitigate our own carbon and we can all do more about that, including me, I travel on airplanes a lot, I’m trying to think how to video more and, you know, to be able to be more energy efficient in our home, etc. But also we need to help countries that are in poor parts of the world where they suffer much more from any slight change in climate. They have no insurance and they’re devastated. Look at what’s happening in Pakistan at the moment?
Recorded September 21, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown