Mary Robinson: The Irish warrior for the downtrodden and defeated

Mary Robinson: The Irish warrior for the downtrodden and defeated

From becoming the first female president of Ireland to her pioneering work with the United Nations, and her own foundations, Mary Robinson has fought hard for social justice and human rights. SALT profiles her

Irishwoman Mary Robinson has been one of the towering female figures in European politics for several decades. In that time, she has revolutionized the role of the president in Ireland, become a powerful advocate for human rights at the UN, and has headed her own foundations in Ireland for human rights and climate change.

Robinson began her career as a constitutional lawyer and sat as an independent candidate in the Irish senate for two decades. Already, she was advocating for social progress. She took on contentious issues, such as contraception, homosexuality, and divorce, all of which were staunchly opposed by traditionalist Catholics. Robinson made it as priority to keep politics and religion separate throughout her 20 years in the Senate.

She became the President of Ireland in 1990 in the first democratic presidential elections since the 1973 appointment of Erskine Childers, who suffered a fatal heart attack one year into his Presidential term. For 17 years, rival governmental parties had agreed candidates and the Irish people had no choice but to accept them.

As soon as she was elected, Robinson made it clear that her priority during her seven-year term as President was social justice. In her inaugural speech, she made a famous rallying call. “The stage is set for a new, common, European home, based on respect for human rights, pluralism, tolerance, and openness to new ideas” , she said.

‘I want young people to know that there are going to be times when you are not going to be proud of what you did, but you go on. And that if you want change, it has to happen from within communities, not from the outside.’ Mary Robinson

She was a remarkable head of state. Despite the small size of Ireland, she became an influential voice on the international stage, focusing her attention on the most pressing global humanitarian issues. She was the first head of state to visit Somalia after its 1992 civil war and famine, and she also travelled to witness the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. At the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the United Nations, she championed Rwanda’s issues. Her groundbreaking visit to Buckingham Palace in 1993 was the first time an Irish president had met peacefully with a British monarch.

Such a powerful and intelligent advocate for change was always going to be headhunted for an international role. Sure enough, two months before the end of Robinson’s presidential term, she accepted the new position of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She began working in Geneva in 1997 and made an immediate impact. She trail-blazed the monitoring of human rights in Kosovo, made the first human- rights focused visit to China, and provided guidance and standards throughout the crises in Rwanda, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Tibet, East Timor, and the Middle East.

Her strong views were always destined to make her a few enemies, as well as many friends. She caused controversy in Israel after serving as Secretary General of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. Israel, and the US, argued that the drafted conclusive resolution of the conference was anti-Israeli and compared Zionism to racism.

Demonstrating the independence spirit that earned her Ireland’s Presidency, Robinson has built a reputation for redefining every role she inhabits. She is credited with transforming the presidential tenure into one directly representative of the people of Ireland. Similar praise was heaped on her work and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She refers to the office as “new and underfunded and weak”, and describes its progress in terms of what she left behind. “After five years, I felt it was a much stronger office with great morale, motivation, and terrific human rights officers, keen to do the work in support of the high commissioner who would be my successor.” There has been speculation that her decision to step down from the post in 2002 was influenced by political pressure from the Bush administration, which felt she was not prioritising US interests.

Between 2002 and 2010, Robinson founded and ran Realizing Rights, whose mission was 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.”. The importance of her work for Realizing Rights was widely recognized. Amnesty International awarded her its Ambassador Of Conscience award in 2004, and Barack Obama presented her with the US Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2009. Following closure of Realizing Rights, Robinson returned to live in Ireland, where she now serves as President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, which hopes to bring about a people-centred, developmental approach to advancing climate justice.

Robinson is passionate and ideological, but she is also a pragmatist, especially when it comes to being a woman in the world of politics. As the first female President of Ireland, Robinson has frequently been asked about the depiction of women in the public eye. She told Ryan Tubridy of RTÉ, that women had no choice but to maintain high standards of appearance. “Being a woman, I knew if I was going to seek high office, I had to look well. It’s inevitable. Everybody who is in public life as a woman knows that so many people on television will say ‘why does she do her hair like that?’ and ’why doesn’t she wear more makeup?’ – it’s one of those things.”

‘An advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored,’ President Barack Obama on Mary Robinson

Her steadfast character has been the source of her great success in her many roles. She recognized early on that she needed to be tough. “When I introduced the family planning legislation and I was denounced from the pulpits, etc, that really affected me. I was only 25. I was used to being liked and admired. For the first time I found I was being hated. The lesson I learned was that if you really believe in something, be prepared to be criticised. It actually gives you more moral strength,” she said.

“I want young people to know that there are going to be times when you are not going to be proud of what you did, but you go on. And that if you want change, it has to happen from within communities, not from the outside. Those from the outside can only support change by being patient and being respectful.”

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