Former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner visits UC Irvine


"Growing up wedged between two older and younger brothers, I developed a very early interest in human rights," Mary Robinson cleverly explained in her Gaelic accent to a crowd of UC Irvine students, faculty, staff and local community members. The former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visited the UC Irvine campus on April 19, 2007 to share her international experiences as an advocate for human rights as the UC Irvine Center for the Study of Democracy's Peltason lecturer and a guest of the Chancellor's Distinguished Fellows Series. 
 
Robinson's interest in human rights developed further into a passion after making several trips to Rwanda while serving as the President of Ireland and later in her position with the United Nations. "I saw piles of children's clothes, walls spattered with blood, women completely alone, many HIV positive," she says of her first trip to the country, shortly after the Rwandan genocide. It was a very eye opening experience, she recalls, that strengthened her resolve to "put rhetoric into action." 
 
In discussions of human rights issues, people have a tendency to place more of an emphasis on political rights, she says. "In reality, the more important issues are the most basic of needs - food, shelter, safety," Robinson says. She now travels the world campaigning for international human rights through lectures on college and university campuses as well as her positions on several committees and projects including the Council of Woman World Leaders which Robinson helped found, and Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative, a program promoting ethical trade and development, humane migration policies and better responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in developing countries. 
 
Pulling a tattered copy of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights from her inside jacket pocket - a small book she noted that she never leaves home without - Robinson delved into the focal point of her lecture on human rights. Singling out two articles in the UN Declaration, Robinson emphasized the duty and responsibility of all people in society to protect and promote international human rights. "Everyday, over 30,000 children under the age of five die from disease, hunger and lack of immunization. This is completely unnecessary," she explained. "If we don't fulfill our duties to the community, we haven't reached our full potential." 
 
Robinson went on to discuss her involvement with the UN's Millennium Declaration, explaining the goals addressed within the Declaration as a "way to make globalization work for all people," tackling issues associated with education, hunger and infant mortality worldwide. 
 
The events of September 11, 2001 had a devastating effect on human rights, Robinson explained, calling the attacks "a crime against humanity". The attacks diverted attention away from the millennium goals, and the international focus became terrorism rather than humanity, she said. "It's time for reflection," Robinson said as she challenged the United States to hold a conference on reflection, similar to the Club of Madrid, in order to come together to discuss the impact of September 11 on society. Her comments were met with applause from many in attendance. 
 
Robinson made another challenge to those seated in the audience; that "individuals and businesses work together to make known the universal rights of all human beings." Calling everyone to action, Robinson recited a quote from one of her heroines, Eleanor Roosevelt, and concluded her formal talk: 

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." --Eleanor Roosevelt 

A question and answer session immediately followed Robinson's formal lecture. A member of the audience asked a question as to Robinson's perspective on balancing freedom and human rights within a society with respect to the attacks of September 11 and the more recent school shootings at Virginia Tech. Robinson explained that "balance is at the very heart of the challenge." "I was very taken aback at the erosion of US civil liberties after 9/11," Robinson said. She further explained that in her opinion, the balance between these two issues has tipped too far to one side in the United States, stating that there "needs to be a serious reassessment." As for the Virginia Tech incident, Robinson called it "a wake up call for more regulation of gun control" in the United States. 
 
A follow up question was asked, inquiring if the Bush administration, in her opinion, was a violation of human rights, to which Robinson very respectfully declined to comment. 
 
A final question came from the audience, asking Robinson what the most memorable aspects of her career campaigning for human rights have been. Robinson noted her travels to countries with severe human rights issues - Sierra Leone, the Congo - where she has been able to bring home the responsibility of the government to protect its people. Describing the "quiet heroism" she witnessed - "the heroes and heroines in local areas who stand up against the torture of their people, often at the cost of their own lives" - Robinson explained as very memorable experiences. 
 
The evening concluded with the Center for CitizenPeacebuilding awarding Robinson their fifth annual Citizen Peacebuilding Award for her "courage and compassion" campaigning for international human rights. 

-Heather Wuebker, Social Sciences Communications

Friday, April 20, 2007