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Mary Robinson

The Complex Case for Humanity in a World of Selfish Nations

May 21, 2000|Paul L. Montgomery | Paul L. Montgomery, a freelance journalist, has worked as a reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal

The United Nations organizations in Geneva are in a green complex above the hurly-burly of the city. Sheep graze in a meadow beside the parking lot. The offices and meeting rooms of the high commissioner for human rights take up several floors of a modern building. The marble lobby echoes with loudspeaker announcements of meetings on such subjects as torture, child prostitution, religious intolerance and land reform. People who have come 10,000 miles to present testimony against the oppression of their governments, and functionaries of the same governments who will impugn their testimony, wait patiently for their turn before the subcommittees. The crying of children and the mourning of widows that appear nightly on the television news are far away.

Mary Robinson, a lawyer and former president of Ireland, has been the United Nations high commissioner for human rights since 1997. She is at the forward edge of a human-rights establishment that hopes to end abuses through publicity, persuasion, boycott or even force. The armed ideologies of the world have not responded well so far, but human-rights activists hope that by continuing the pressure the tide will turn.

Shortly after taking office, Robinson helped commemorate, in 1998, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The original document set the standards for the U.N. effort in that area. Since then, Robinson has insisted at every opportunity on the necessity of making human rights a cornerstone of every country's politics and procedures.

The high commissioner is a no-nonsense internationalist. Her voice retains the lilt of Ireland, but she is not one for blarney. She gets to the point directly and stays on it. Her reports on her visits to areas in turmoil are evenhanded and unrhetorical. Her objectivity and willingness to hear all sides make the enormous tragedies she describes even more vivid.

Robinson was born in Ireland on May 21, 1944, and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, and Harvard Law School. She passed the Irish Bar in 1967 and the English in 1973. She was a member of the Irish Senate from 1969-89 and the president of Ireland from 1990-97. She married in 1970 and has two sons and a daughter.


Question: The annual session of the Human Rights Commission, the 56th since the United Nations was founded, ended last month. What was accomplished?

Answer: It adopted two new instruments relating to children, [one] on child soldiers and [another] on sale of children for purposes of prostitution. It also adopted a resolution establishing . . . a special representative for human-rights defenders, it adopted a number of rapporteurs in the economic area . . . and there was a special dialogue on poverty as a human-rights issue.

The country situations are the most political part of the [commission's] work, and I think it was significant that there was a resolution adopted on Chechnya, which is, I think, the first time a resolution has been adopted concerning a member of the permanent five [the five countries--the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain--in the 15-member Security Council that have permanent seats]. . . . [The] country resolutions . . . tend to be the focus of interest, but looking at it and assessing the way in which the commission is developing, I thought that the overall spirit was more cooperative.

Q: You visited Chechnya recently with what many considered less than promising results. (Robinson was denied entry to refugee camps and refused an interview with Vladimir Putin, now Russian president.) Did your visit do any good?

A: It was important to accept the invitation to visit Chechnya, and indeed the region, Ingushetia and Dagestan, and to report to the commission. The report was referred to during the debate by members of the commission, and they adopted the resolution, which gives me, as high commissioner, and our office a considerable mandate in relation to further developments. At the moment . . . we are advising and supporting the establishment by the Russian Federation of an independent national commission of inquiry. . . .

Q: Have there been any human-rights complaints about the new Austrian government?

A: The primary concern, in relation to Austria, is a matter for the European Union and, potentially, for the Council of Europe. There aren't any specific instances that have been drawn to our attention or appear to have surfaced. In a more indirect way, there is a concern, already expressed in Geneva, in the context of the preparatory committee of the world conference against racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia. . . . The participation of . . . far-right parties that have expressed strong views, anti-Semitic views, is raising concern, and that concern has been expressed on the floor of the preparatory conference.

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