Mary Robinson

The outgoing U.N. high commissioner for human rights talks about running afoul of the Bush administration over Israel and the Palestinians, ending the "cycle of impunity" and standing up to bullies.

Published July 26, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

On Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly approved Secretary-General Kofi Annan's nomination of Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello to become the next U.N. high commissioner for human rights. His term -- Vieira de Mello is just the third individual to hold the position -- will begin on Sept. 12 and he's sure to be watched closely -- by both human rights groups and the Bush administration.

After Vieira de Mello's nomination was announced on Monday, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, "[Vieira de Mello] brings to the job an impressive diplomatic and U.N. background, but he lacks hands-on human rights experience. The challenge he faces is to prove that he will stand up to governments and be an unwavering voice on behalf of the victims of human rights abuse."

As Vieira de Mello himself told Reuters, "The job in itself is a minefield ... It is the risk of politicization and how to manage that, how to ensure that human rights are not over politicized." And no one can vouch for his assertion better than Mary Robinson, the outgoing high commissioner, whose term ends on the now iconic date of Sept.11. It's common knowledge that her defense of the Durban Conference against Racism, which U.S. and Israeli representatives walked out of, her views on the Israel-Palestine conflict and her condemnation of the U.S. treatment of prisoners in Camp X-ray at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay provoked the Bush administration to oppose the extension of her term.

Robinson became the second United Nations high commissioner for human rights in June 1997 after resigning as president of Ireland. Before Robinson, Ireland's presidency was a ceremonial office, whose holder was expected to do little more than shake hands with VIPs and open schools and hospitals. But when Robinson -- a woman with socialist and feminist leanings -- was elected, it symbolized the changes in what had been a traditionally conservative and religion-dominated country. She stretched the boundaries of the presidency to fit her concerns, one of the most prominent of which was human rights. She made trips to places like Somalia and Rwanda, and in the Great Lakes region of Africa she coined the memorable phrase, "the cycle of impunity," to describe the process by which leaving mass murder unpunished encouraged others to do the same.

Her name had actually been raised as a replacement for Boutros Boutros Ghali at the head of the U.N., but although she was the right gender, Ireland was not in Africa, and that was where the consensus said that the next secretary general should come from. And when he did, Kofi Annan tapped her for the human rights job. As high commissioner for human rights, she brought a sense of urgency to the position, and the authority of a recently retired head of state. It irked the type of U.N. bureaucrats who would much rather file reports of massacres at the bottom of a cabinet than upset governments. For her, human rights transcended national affiliations. For example, just because China was big, or Israel had friends in Washington, was no reason to stay silent.

The word went around in the corridors of power in Washington and New York's U.N. headquarters. She was "difficult to work with." Just because the U.S. and Israel walked out of the Durban Conference, she saw no reason to close it down when the rest of the world stayed. She was forthright about abuses of human rights by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority: In Washington she was damned.

However, though she leaves the U.N. in a matter of weeks, Robinson refuses to limp like a lame duck. Recently, she was in New York to report to the Security Council on the massacres and the human rights situation in the Congo and was as forthright as ever before giving up what she calls "the day job."

Putting it politely, from the outside it looks as if the Middle East issue was the one that led to, shall we say, diminished enthusiasm for your renewal in office. Is that a fair assessment?

Indeed. It's ironic in a way, because the issue I'm most committed to is the integrity of the human rights agenda, and shaping it so it's not politicized. I applied that faithfully to addressing the problems both in the occupied Palestinian Territory and in Israel, and I have mentally, emotionally and intellectually tried to be bound by it. I may have made some mistakes but that is where I'm at, because that is essentially the core of why I took this job.

It was very interesting to me that it is not so perceived on the Israeli side. It may be because I've been over-appreciated on the Palestinian side. But I have condemned unequivocally suicide bombing, and reiterated the need for human security in Israel for political debate.

Even then, in 2000, it was very evident that the occupation is at the root of many of the human rights problems, and the intifada, which had started then, was only at the stage of stone throwing and young people being killed. Since then we have drive-by shootings and suicide bombing which is of course appalling and cannot be condemned strongly enough, certainly not justified by any cause -- but the Israeli responses are also excessive.

It worries me that in this great country [the U.S.] that's not the perception: They don't see the suffering of the Palestinian people; they don't see the impact of collective punishment. They do immediately see and empathize -- and rightly -- with the suffering of Israeli civilians who are killed, or injured, or just frightened, and of course I do too. But I find it very disheartening that there is not more understanding here of the appalling suffering of the Palestinian population, nor appreciation that this is not going to lead to a secure future. It's going to lead to greater hatred and desperation, of further suicide bombings.

You believe your views on this issue were the reason why the U.S. so vigorously opposed an extension of your term?

Yes, combined with the Durban conference. I urged and begged the U.S. and Israel to stay. I told them that all the draft language, which was unacceptable, would be taken out -- and it was. But once they left, there are those who refuse now to accept that any good came out of Durban.

I'm not defensive about my record on the Middle East or the Durban conference. I think we achieved an extraordinary breakthrough in Durban against all the odds. But there are two very different perceptions. I was in Mexico last week for the first of the follow up regional conferences from Durban, and it was a joy to see how much it means for countries in Central and Southern American, Mexico, the host, Brazil, Chile, the way it has brought new hope for indigenous peoples, for people of African descent, for black Brazilians. I was hearing the plans for action to follow up on Durban from civil society and government -- and I thought, "At last! The true agenda is resurfacing." Of course, we need it more than ever following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Now, after five years as high commissioner, do you think you have made a difference?

Certainly there's been a change ... I [recently] addressed the Security Council on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and they will publish my report as a document. Five years ago, the S.C. would not have listened to a high commissioner!

There's also been a dramatic shift, and one that I do take some credit for, in the developing world's attitude. When I started back in September of 1997, I was quite taken aback by how many leaders of developing countries told me: "Don't you know human rights is just a Western stick to beat us with? It is politicized, nothing to do with real concern about human rights."

You know, there was an element of truth in that, and so I found it necessary to find, first of all, the true agenda of human rights at the international level. That is to be strong in civil liberties, in the protection and promotion of civil and political rights, and strong in the protection and promotion of economic, social and cultural rights, and to fulfill the express vision and mandate of the establishment of the high commissioner's office, which was to seek consensus on the right to development. That's an individual and a collective right, the right of the people to gain the full flower of their human rights.

And that led to more linkage being made by leaders of developing countries between human rights and economic and social development. They began to realize that if you got your human rights right, you accelerated human development, economic development ... What is very clear is that human rights need protection at national and local level, and therefore unless there is more attention to strengthening human rights, and law and administration of justice at national level, then we are not really going to make great progress.

It's reflected very dramatically in the New Economic Partnership for African Development, the NEPAD. The text of that is an extraordinary indication of how far human rights have moved to become the priority tool of developing countries in making progress. They identified the four priority areas: to strengthen the administration of justice, the rule of law, tackling corruption, and adhering fully to international human rights norms and standards ... To me it is a moral as well as a practical issue. If countries give priority to these issues and cannot find the resources domestically -- then that's certainly an area I'm going to address by trying to build quiet alliances for it for when I quit the day job.

Do you have a new day job lined up?

I do feel energized at the end of this quite demanding job, so I have a real sense of wanting to bring this experience into a different and broader field. I have specific ideas for what I want to achieve, but I need to work out practical ways to do it.

I'm very interested in the whole debate on shaping globalization and I think that the international human rights norms and standards have a contribution to make to a more ethical globalization.

We have the international norms and standards, we have the treaty bodies working more effectively, we have the rapporteurs, there's an ability to name and shame, it's accepted that human rights don't stop at borders -- that if there are violations in a country, the international community is rightly interested. The crucial issue now in human rights is national capacity building.

Your concerns have not always been shared by some international organizations: the World Bank and IMF traditionally never let a few prison camps interfere with their appreciation of a good GDP growth rate. Have you turned them round yet?

Certainly, our office is working, particularly with the World Bank but also the IMF and WTO, and we're engaged in a very significant analysis of poverty reduction strategies and we're developing human rights guidelines for them, with close involvement of the W.B., the IMF, and the WTO. This would not have happened two years ago. It's a really interesting intellectual development. Human rights lawyers are listening to economists and vice versa in seeing how the human rights norms and standards can be a positive framework for addressing poverty, because they address participation; it gives civil society tools to measure whether there is progressive implementation of the right to education, right to health, to food, without discrimination against minorities, indigenous people.

The World Trade Organization especially has been seen as totally heartless and ethics-free by design. Have you really given them a heart transplant?

It's true that trade ministers going into the WTO meetings don't bring with them, as I believe they should, a consciousness of the commitments their governments have made to ratify covenants and conventions. Equally, we don't have a situation that it's in the front of the mind of the IMF. In a country like Argentina, where there are problems, is there sufficient consciousness to help such a government that has ratified the covenant on economic, cultural and social rights, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child to carry through on that, and to progressively implement these rights, or is the emphasis all on structural adjustment? So we need "joined up" government that brings the human rights commitment into the WTO.

At the moment, many governments all over the world are joining up to throw human rights overboard as part of the struggle against terrorism using Sept. 11 as an excuse. If you think you'd made progress before, don't you see lots of it evaporating?

It's a very serious concern. I was struck last month when we had the annual meeting of the rapporteurs and the coming together of the chairs of the treaty bodies, that all these experts were concerned about the deteriorating situation after Sept. 11. We all recognize the importance of human security, of coalitions against terrorism, of Security Council Resolution 1473 [calling for joint action against terrorism], but nonetheless the impact on the ground is very worrying for human rights. Governments are using it to clamp down on human rights and freedom of expression -- human rights defenders branded as terrorists; the harsh climate for asylum seekers and refugees. The worrying thing is that secure democracies such as the U.S. are not holding the standards properly. Just look at the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and even more so those who have been arrested under immigration laws with no access to lawyers and no information. Nobody knows exactly what his or her situation is.

You have worked hard to engage China, and you were attacked by some of the Irish press for pandering to the occupiers of Tibet. How successful has your engagement with the Chinese been?

In fact, I was impressed by how far we've been able to come since that first visit [to China] in September 1998. When I go back in August for a workshop on the independence of lawyers and judges, it will be my sixth visit as high commissioner. We've had an intensive series of workshops with them, on reeducation through labor, on the police and human rights, devising a human rights training manual for the police, on human rights education and to insert human rights values in the [school] curriculum on secondary and tertiary levels.

But I have no illusions. None of this means we have changed things overnight. On the other hand, nor does a technical cooperation program mean that I don't speak out on human rights issues. Every time I've been in China, I've been very tough on how they treat the Falun Gong, on their treatment of political dissidents. When I went in November after Sept. 11, I made the point to them that they were using it to be more severe on the Uighur population, branding them as terrorists in a way that had not been done before.

So I take up all these issues: They do say to me now, "We know your habits." But that being said, I'm impressed with the progress we've made. When the Chinese sign a covenant, they do it for Chinese reasons -- and they are quite serious about it. So we shouldn't underestimate what can be done. Even some of the federations, like the All China Federation of Women, are becoming more and more independent and more and more concerned with the rights of women.

Also, the last time I was there they were taking courageous stands as women in their own area to bring home that the denial and stigma attached to HIV/AIDS meant that there would be a rampant HIV/AIDS problem.

One phrase you coined that will surely live on is "the cycle of impunity." You used it in Central Africa to describe how each person who committed genocide thought they could get away with it because their predecessors had. Has the International Criminal Court put the brake on the cycle, or is it just symbolic?

I really think the ICC is an extraordinary step forward, a very important institution, a way of symbolizing that we are going to end impunity for egregious human rights violations. It may take time, but now there is going to be a permanent court, and you can be brought before it if you haven't been before a national court.

I really regret, first of all, the "unsigning" of the statute by the United States. You know, we deal with the integrity and strength of what we build up in human rights, and part of it is that when we sign and ratify instruments we stand by them. What the U.S. has done is to create uncertainty. Signing is usually an indication that ratification is on the way. Now if other countries are under pressure on human rights instruments they've signed, they may say "Well, the U.S. can unsign a treaty, then so can we."

Secondly, I found the controversy about peacekeepers to be very sad. The political resolution of it has angered the human rights community, but it's more important that we get back to strengthening the court. There have been 76 ratifications. Mexico and others are on the way. There will soon be 100 or more.

One of things about the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission in Geneva is that it certainly contains, shall we say, a statistically significant number of human rights offenders: many of them unlikely to rush to ratify the ICC. Even the worst of enemies, like Iran and Iraq, tend to team up there. It must embarrass your office. Can anything be done about that?

It is true that some countries with poor human rights records do try to get onto the commission, to thwart its protection mission. But I've emphasized that it's vital that there be a strong protection role. I also strongly suggested to the commission with both my opening and closing speech in Geneva that membership should mean something to members. It should be open to all members because that's the U.N. way, but becoming a member of the Human Rights Commission should mean a commitment to put the country in a better shape in ratifying and implementing instruments.

You were a head of state yourself. Has that made it easier to bust the bureaucracy and get things done with countries?

I think I was always clear that I came into this position to do a job, not try to keep a job. I got very wise advice from a friend of mine when I started -- "Mary, remember, if you get too popular in that job, it means that you're not doing a good job." So I didn't actively seek to be unpopular, but I knew that to do the job well and bring out what is really the culture of human rights, you have to stand up to bullies, you've got to be prepared to criticize both developed and developing countries. When I took issue recently with Australia over their harsh detention policy for asylum seekers, they were outraged -- "We're a democratic country, we don't need you here" -- as if international standards only applied to developing countries. There is that mentality. Whereas if you believe as I do in the integrity of human rights, then they must be applied without fear or favor. And if that's my legacy, I'm happy about that, that can resonate on, and that's very encouraging for those who work on the coalface of human rights and risk their lives. The most I risked is being criticized in press or parliaments.

Do you think your successor will have the same flexibility and force?

I hope for as smooth a transition as possible, to be as helpful as possible and then to clear the field for my successor, which is very important ... I think there'll be a lot of encouragement from the international human rights community, and from my own office. It took quite a lot of building up, but I now lead a great team of very dedicated people and that's the way they want it. And that's the way the rapporteurs and the human rights NGOs want it, so there will be a lot of encouragement.

Not long after you took office and I spoke to you, you referred to the "terrible bureaucracy" of the U.N. Have you mellowed?

I wouldn't alter a word of it. There are enormous frustrations with working in the U.N. system, not least that the office of high commissioner does not have control over its own financial position, its own personnel. There are so many bureaucratic ways ... a lot of mini managing, which isn't always well intentioned, but it's crucial to have a strong human rights voice in the U.N. in the office of the commissioner. But even so, one of things I've been very happy with is to see the fruits of this mainstreaming in the wider U.N. system, into the executive committees, into peacekeeping, development, into the work of country teams. They now focus more and more on a rights-based approach to development and poverty reduction.

We have achieved at an initial stage the mandate of mainstreaming, and now it needs to be brought to a deeper stage with the U.N.'s millennium goals for which the office is preparing human rights guidelines. It will be interesting to see if we can make this part of a U.N. that is value-led with a strong human rights input.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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