A loudspeaker for rights, Mary Robinson to visit here

Mary Robinson, Indian activist Ela Bhatt, and former President Jimmy Carter, members of the Elders, global leaders who work together for peace and human rights, visited East Jerusalem in 2010.
Mary Robinson, Indian activist Ela Bhatt, and former President Jimmy Carter, members of the Elders, global leaders who work together for peace and human rights, visited East Jerusalem in 2010. (MENAHEM KAHANA / Associated Press)
Posted: March 08, 2013

Mary Robinson doesn't mind the tough stuff.

As the United Nations chief advocate for human rights, she traveled the world in a hot-spot hopscotch - Rwanda, Chechnya, Dagestan, East Timor, the West Bank - for hard discussions with people who didn't necessarily want her around.

No matter.

"I've never found it difficult to stand up to bullies," says the former president of Ireland (1990-1997) and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). It's a matter-of-fact statement, not a boast.

Her passion for fairness, she says, is of long standing.

"I joke that my interest in rights came from being the only daughter among four brothers," Robinson says by phone from Chicago during a visit to promote her memoir, Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice (Walker, $26), written with her daughter, Tessa.

Robinson's book tour brings her to Philadelphia on Friday for appearances at the World Affairs Council (sold out) and the American Philosophical Society.

"March 8 is International Women's Day," says Craig Snyder, president of the World Affairs Council. "We wanted to have a very distinguished woman from the world of international politics to be with us that day. "

"Giving voice," as Robinson puts it in her subtitle, is what her life has been about.

"She's really served a loudspeaker function for human rights and women's rights," says Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Robinson wrote a chapter on child marriage around the world for The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women's Rights, a book that Worden edited.

"This is someone whose tenure as the human rights commissioner really changed the nature of the office," says George A. Lopez, professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. Robinson turned the post into "a good bully pulpit" and expanded the scope of the U.N.'s rights agenda to include social, economic, and cultural as well as political rights, Lopez adds.

Robinson used that pulpit to criticize U.S. government policies in the war on terror, Chinese oppression of Tibet, and Russian atrocities in Chechnya. She may have been a U.N. official, but she often seemed more activist than diplomat.

"I had to learn in my early months as high commissioner to speak truth to power, but have that sense of diplomacy," she says. But diplomacy only went so far. "It was mostly speaking truth to power."

Admiration for Robinson is not universal. That became clear when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in July 2009 for her efforts as "an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored."

Some Jewish groups argued that Robinson didn't deserve the award. They said that she had allowed enemies of Israel to "hijack" the U.N.'s 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, and turn it into a vehicle for Israel-bashing. A preliminary draft of the conference's declaration included language equating Zionism with racism and blasting Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

Robinson points out in her book that the offensive language was removed from the conference's final declaration, as she was certain it would be, but concedes that she "underestimated the hurt and anxiety words in a document would cause," even a preliminary document.

She admits in the book that "the conference outcome has always been marred by the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue."

"I have learned to be philosophical about those who express hatred and contempt for me as a result of my actions at the Durban conference or in other statements I've made on the Middle East," she writes. "It gives me a personal insight, which otherwise I might not have had, into the far greater pain of the slights and discrimination so many suffer because of racism."

The rights of women have been a special interest for Robinson, the first female president of Ireland.

In the Ireland where Robinson, 68, grew up, "girls were supposed to know their place," she recalls. "They didn't have as many options as boys. They couldn't be altar boys or priests. I was conscious of it, of the inequality. From a very early age, I had that inner sense of fairness and justice. It was very much part of why I wanted to study law."

As a young senator in Ireland, Robinson introduced a bill in 1971 that would have decriminalized the sale and supply of contraceptives. The Catholic Church opposed it and the bill never got a first reading. (The Irish Supreme Court, citing the right to privacy, found in 1974 that contraception was permissible. A 1979 law allowed what Robinson describes as "a limited, highly regulated form of legal contraception.")

Her gender was "a very positive factor" in her work as high commissioner, she says, because "women in particular suffer terrible violations" around the world. Even religion "can be distorted by bad traditional practices such as early marriage and genital mutilation," Robinson says.

These days, Robinson has turned her attention to and "climate justice."

"It's what wakes me up every morning, with strong motivation," says Robinson, who is married to lawyer and cartoonist Nick Robinson.

To deal with the issue, she established the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice. The foundation's goal, according to its website ( www.mrfcj.org) is "to secure global justice for those people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change who are usually forgotten - the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised across the world."

While the situation is serious, it isn't lost, she says. "We have a lot to do and we have to act quickly. We have until the end of this decade. It's all right to be concerned, but the main thing is to really get serious." That means getting a "climate justice dialogue" going and creating "a demand for a fair climate," Robinson stresses. And it means "a tax on carbon."

What would Robinson say to young people worried about the planet's future?

She would tell them about her own approach to problems: Don't focus on whether the glass is half empty or half full, but on whether there is something in the glass at all.

Contact Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com.