A Voice for Human Rights

Mary Robinson was United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002. During those five tumultuous years, which included the tragic events of 9/11, she offered moral leadership and vision to the global human rights movement. This volume collects her major public addresses from the period.

A Voice for Human Rights

Mary Robinson. Edited by Kevin Boyle. Foreword by Kofi Annan. Afterword by Louise Arbour

2005 | 456 pages | Cloth $55.00 | Paper $27.50
Law | Public Policy
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Kofi Annan

Introduction by Kevin Boyle

Chapter 1: A Personal Vision

Chapter 2: The Struggle against Racism
Chapter 3: Women's Rights Are Human Rights
Chapter 4: Eliminating Religious Discrimination and Intolerance
Chapter 5: Combating Other Discrimination and Exclusion

Chapter 6: Human Rights Defenders
Chapter 7: Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
Chapter 8: The Right to Development
Chapter 9: Human Rights Education
Chapter 10: Children's Rights
Chapter 11: Minorities and Indigenous Peoples
Chapter 12: Human Rights after Conflict
Chapter 13: Business and Human Rights

Chapter 14: The High Commissioner and the United Nations Human Rights System
Chapter 15: Supporting United Nations Human Rights Bodies
Chapter 16: Working with Countries and Regions
Chapter 17: Strengthening National Human Rights Protection

Chapter 18: Mainstreaming Human Rights
Chapter 19: Terrorism, Peace, and Human Security
Chapter 20: Ethical Globalization

Farewell Speech

Afterword by Louise Arbour

Appendix 1 Key International Legal Instruments
Appendix 2 General Assembly Resolution 48/141

Editorial Acknowledgments

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General

The job of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is not for the faint of heart. At times even well-behaved governments view the occupant of the post as something of a nuisance, while those with something to hide will often denounce the High Commissioner's efforts as unwarranted attacks on national sovereignty. Civil society organizations, meanwhile, often expect miracles—as though the policies of hard-bitten dictators could be changed overnight by confrontational public comments, or for that matter by hidden persuasion, from an official whose power is entirely of the "soft" variety. And as if this wasn't enough, the High Commissioner must also run a sizable administration and navigate the political minefields associated with the Commission on Human Rights and its wide-ranging mechanisms. Equal parts lawyer and teacher, prosecutor and witness, hard talk and soft shoulder, the job, though little more than a decade old, is one of the most important in the entire United Nations system.

It was the need for such a forceful combination of qualities that led me, in 1997, to ask Mary Robinson to take it on. I was familiar with her distinguished career in Ireland as a lawyer and women's rights advocate. Her visits, as President of her country, to Somalia and Rwanda had coincided with my own efforts, in the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, to resolve the conflicts and alleviate the suffering in those countries. I was moved by her concern for the victims of violence. When I later sought someone to serve as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I remembered the eloquent compassion she had shown. Along with human rights advocates around the world, I was delighted when she agreed to take up this challenge.

My faith in her proved well founded. She brought to the task a leader's vision, a lawyer's precision, and a believer's conviction. Whether talking to Government officials or to the victims of violations, in large meetings or in more intimate settings, she was able to convey the very essence of human rights. She focused renewed attention on neglected issues such as economic and social rights and the right to development. She inspired her staff to new levels of accomplishment. And she never shied away from controversial issues. Hers was a clear voice for human rights where a clear voice was needed.

That singular voice resonates in the speeches and statements reproduced in this book. Steeped both in history and in the daily lives of today's oppressed, it reminds us why human rights matter and shows how a High Commissioner can make a difference. These speeches are her thoughts alone, in her own voice, but they challenge all of us to be less apathetic, more curious about the fate of others, and more engaged.

When Mary left the United Nations in 2002, she left the world a better place than she had found it. And her work for the cause of human rights continues. I hope this collection will reach the wide global audience it deserves.

* * * * *

Kevin Boyle

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and an outsider to the United Nations, was its High Commissioner for Human Rights from September 1997 to September 2002, a period of five years. She was the second individual to be the "principal officer for human rights" in the United Nations. The first High Commissioner was José Ayala-Lasso, (1994-97), a United Nations diplomat, who left the post to return to Ecuador as Foreign Minister. The third, Sergio Vieira de Mello, a highly experienced and highly regarded United Nations career official, was appointed in September 2002. He had served but eleven months before he was killed in a bomb attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. In July 2004 a new High Commissioner, Louise Arbour, former Canadian Supreme Court judge and prosecutor at the United Nations Ad Hoc Tribunals in The Hague and Arusha, took up the post.

The post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is therefore little more than ten years old. Mary Robinson's five years in the position were its formative years to date. Hers became one of the most influential voices on human rights of the last decade. The purpose of this book, which brings together a range of her addresses, speeches, and statements along with linking commentary, is to provide a systematic record of, and context for, the ideas, policies, campaigns, and initiatives so energetically pursued over that period by Mary Robinson and the staff she inspired. Such a collection will serve to honor the signal contribution she made as High Commissioner to the cause of universal human rights. But it will also, it is hoped, serve as an introduction to the international human rights cause and how that cause continues to be pursued inside and outside the United Nations.

This book is not a biography. Nor is it an evaluation of Mary Robinson's term as High Commissioner. Rather, it is an effort to tell the story of her five years in this important position through her own words. The texts of statements made, speeches delivered, and messages sent are a powerful historical resource in seeking to offer such an account. They cannot, however, capture the entire story. As High Commissioner, Mary Robinson traveled continuously, and in her meetings with victims of human rights violations and with local human rights defenders in many countries, she delivered numerous memorable and empowering messages that were by their nature unscripted and unrecorded. She was at her best without a script, speaking from the heart. Nevertheless, even though the bias in this selection of texts is to the formal record, her deep commitment to making a difference in the lives of ordinary men, women, and children—often the victims of conflict and violence, discrimination and abuse—shines through.

Her words assembled in this book are not simply from the archives of what has passed. They also remain relevant to the present and the future. That is because the mission of securing universal respect for human rights is a long-term project. Steps that have been taken and milestones reached in that mission are never defunct history. They remain part of a story that stretches back to the founding of the United Nations and are part of the context for today's efforts to advance further. It is striking how frequently Mary Robinson's speeches invoke the past, understood in these terms. Eleanor Roosevelt's injunction that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 must be heard "in small places, close to home" was a favorite quotation, for example. The position of High Commissioner rests, as does much else in contemporary human rights work, on the Vienna Declaration and Plan of Action of the World Conference on Human Rights of June 1993. This high point of international consensus after the Cold War led to indispensable understandings on the nature of human rights and the legitimacy of international concern over their violation. The World Conference documents figured prominently and inevitably in many of Mary Robinson's speeches.

In broad terms, the role envisaged for the post on its creation by the General Assembly in 1993 entailed three responsibilities: to give moral leadership on human rights to the world; to offer expert advice and support to human rights institutions at the international and national levels; and to improve the overall effectiveness of United Nations human rights activities. Communication is vital to all of these tasks. They require a High Commissioner in addressing a wide range of audiences variously to inspire, explain, or educate; to advocate, shame, or condemn; to persuade, encourage, or cajole—in short, to communicate. Apart from the significant but invisible role of "quiet diplomacy," such messages were conveyed through the written or spoken word; in media interviews, press releases, and video messages; on the OHCHR Web site or in publications; and at official and informal meetings, symbolic ceremonies, conferences, and lectures all over the world. Mary Robinson, as High Commissioner, energetically and skillfully used all such means and occasions to make human rights more visible. The texts gathered in this book reflect her passionate insistence that international human rights standards must be taken seriously by all. Whatever the occasion, formal or informal, her words convey that passion. They also convey what she saw as her primary mission to be a voice for the victims of human rights abuses.


The possibility of real change requires the coincidence of a person and particular historical circumstances. And so it proved in respect of Mary Robinson's five years as High Commissioner. Her earlier career had prepared her well for the post and she took up the position at a time when a new reforming Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, was set to bring human rights into the center of what the United Nations should stand for.

Born on 21 May 1944, Mary Robinson had an exceptional public presence in Ireland before taking up her United Nations position. This encompassed a career in law, the academy, politics, and social activism that incorporated an international outlook and a belief in human rights from the outset. By the age of twenty-five she had gained a law degree at Trinity College Dublin and a masters in law from Harvard. In 1969 she was appointed as the youngest professor of law at Trinity College, and she was later to become its Chancellor, the first woman to do so since the Tudor monarch Elizabeth I.

Her espousal of women's rights and civil rights issues in the Irish and European courts, her involvement with social movements, and her twenty campaigning years as a senator in the Irish Parliament demonstrated a commitment to human rights activism that continued during her seven years as Ireland's elected President, 1990-97. The 1990s are now referred to in Ireland as the "Robinson years," a time of rapid economic improvement and movement toward a more honest and socially inclusive society. Mary Robinson was both the symbol of and a key influence on the shaping of present-day Ireland. Her concerns as President were not confined to Ireland. She led public opinion in looking out both to the Irish diaspora and to the stark contrasts in life chances between developing and developed worlds. Her visit as head of state to Somalia in 1992 and her personal campaign to alleviate famine there, along with her presence in Rwanda soon after the genocide of 1994, helped focus not only Irish but also world attention on collective responsibility for these appalling and avoidable tragedies.

When appointed High Commissioner by the General Assembly in 1997 on the recommendation of Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson was recognized throughout the world as an Irish leader of integrity and as an advocate and activist for global social justice and human rights. Her appointment was welcomed by many governments and was greeted with open delight by human rights and development groups worldwide. They hoped that her drive and passion combined with her visibility and status could make the post of High Commissioner a force to advance the UN's faltering commitment to the defense of human rights.

The goodwill, support, and hopes of the world's grassroots were to drive Mary Robinson in her new role. But she was also sensitive to the danger of dashing expectations. She could and did speak out over human rights abuses. But the limits of moral authority in the world were also constantly brought home to her. So also were the constraints imposed on her own freedom of action as an international official in the world of competing states and competing priorities that is the United Nations. She had no prior experience working in a large organization, and the bureaucratic procedures of a complex international body such as the United Nations were experienced first with shock and then with frustration.

The potential of the United Nations to make a difference she never doubted, but impatience with the pace of progress and the inadequacy of the funds committed to human rights caused her, as her first four-year term came to an end, to announce that she would not seek a second term. She told the Commission on Human Rights that she believed she could "achieve more outside the constraints that a multilateral organization inevitably imposes." The announcement caused a furor among many governments and human rights organizations who appealed to her to stay. At the request of Kofi Annan she agreed to continue as High Commissioner for a further year, sensitive to his point that it was short notice to find a qualified successor.

The additional year was not one of marking time. It included the enormous task of leading the World Conference against Racism. It also included the epochal event of "9/11" in the United States. Her contributions to the World Conference and her concerns for global human rights in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States are recorded in this book.

The Mandate

The origins of the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights can be traced to the period of the drafting of the International Bill of Human Rights. It had been championed for many years by John Humphrey, the first United Nations permanent secretary for human rights. The Commission on Human Rights endorsed the idea of a High Commissioner as early as 1967. It was also endorsed at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. Following the Vienna Conference, in December 1993, the General Assembly established the position of High Commissioner for Human Rights along with an office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR). The High Commissioner would have the rank of Under-Secretary General and be described as the "United Nations official with principal responsibility for United Nations human rights activities." The first High Commissioner, José Ayala-Lasso, who had chaired the working group that hammered out the resolution, took up his duties in April 1994.

The drafting of the General Assembly resolution that contains the job description of the post resulted in consensus. But one consequence was that each regional grouping in the United Nations inserted its own wish list of what a High Commissioner should do. As a result, the particulars of the post proposed a vast list of potential responsibilities. Mary Robinson's task on her appointment was to make headway in addressing all of these while seeking to establish priorities among them.

The resolution's main thrust was to give a greater prominence to United Nations objectives in the promotion and protection of human rights in the post-Cold War world. Human rights activities had developed ad hoc in response to particular pressures and events over many years. The hope was that the new position of High Commissioner, located within the United Nations Secretariat, could shape the different institutions and procedures into a coherent and more effective program that would make a difference to the millions whose rights were violated on a daily basis.

The Kofi Annan Reforms and "Mainstreaming"

The possibilities of creating such coherence were significantly boosted by Kofi Annan's election as Secretary General in 1997 and his sweeping program of reform of the UN Secretariat.10 Human rights were to be a priority and integrated or "mainstreamed" into all the activities of the United Nations, in particular the work of the four proposed Executive Committees responsible for all programs. The High Commissioner for Human Rights was to be tasked with leading the new mainstreaming policy. Mary Robinson's first major address after her appointment, the Romanes lecture in Oxford (see Chapter 1), in which she accused many in the United Nations of having "lost the plot" because of the failure to maintain human rights protection as a core purpose of the Organization, was seen as explicit support for the Annan reforms from the new High Commissioner. The speech was later reprinted by the United Nations and clearly helped to focus minds on the new priority for human rights.

The new status for human rights within the United Nations, as she noted at the time, presented Mary Robinson's fledgling office with an enormous challenge as well as opportunity. She spoke of her role as being "catalytic" to induce change in the Secretariat and UN agencies that would lead them to embrace human rights values, concepts, and principles in their programming and policies. Such thinking, supported by Kofi Annan, constituted a radical development in UN terms. Human rights had been perceived by many as a technical and legal field that was also politically charged and overall best avoided. The efforts made to overcome such perceptions, the efforts to advance integration of human rights into different UN policies and programs, and the considerable success achieved during Mary Robinson's term are reported on in different texts in the book.

The New Human Rights Agenda: The Vienna World Conference on Human Rights

If Kofi Annan's plans to shake up the United Nations were one foundation on which Mary Robinson built, the other was the new understandings on human rights and the duties on the international community to uphold them that resulted from the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. At Vienna there was a conscious abandonment of Cold War positions on human rights and the international order that had polarized the world and had made effective international action on human rights abuses virtually impossible. A fresh statement of global values, which sought to link the concerns and approaches of all regions, found consensus support, as did a Plan of Action to implement them.

Perhaps the most important advance in the long term was the acceptance by the World Conference of the legitimacy of international concern over the human rights practices of all states. Human rights everywhere were declared to be in the international public domain, as was the need for the international community to treat human rights problems globally "in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis." The universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all rights—economic, social, and cultural, as well as civil and political—were also affirmed. The Conference recognized the imperative of development in an unequal world and that the pursuit of development, human rights (including the right to development), democracy, and the rule of law were interdependent goals. Vienna also represented a significant positive step in the struggle for the recognition of the rights of women. The Conference called for new efforts to achieve gender equality and to eliminate all other forms of discrimination, in particular racial discrimination.

The substance of these understandings and commitments was to be incorporated into the General Assembly resolution setting out the job description of the new post of High Commissioner. Not the least of Mary Robinson's achievements was to ensure that this new vision for the cause of international human rights was actively pursued as the foundation of her Office's program of work.

Throughout the speeches in this book, her commitment to ensuring equal recognition of economic and social rights with civil and political rights is a staple theme. She was the first to argue that extreme poverty was in itself human rights violation and that the elimination of poverty was the central meaning of the link between the human rights obligations of all states and development. Her advocacy of the nexus between development and human rights and her highlighting of the impact of poverty on women provided highly influential analysis and advocacy for international agencies, governments, and human rights activists alike. Such thinking also connected directly with the new policy of mainstreaming human rights into the United Nations system. It gave that policy impetus in her newly established Office and in the cooperation pursued with other UN agencies and programs, notably the United Nations Development Programme.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was celebrated in 1998, during Mary Robinson's first full year of office. The anniversary provided her with opportunities in different parts of the world to bring the Vienna commitments and understandings on human rights to a global audience. It also provided her with the opportunity to remind governments of the implications of what they had agreed on in Vienna and that for too many people there was nothing to celebrate after fifty years of the promise of the Universal Declaration. No single voice did more to ensure a continued focus on the human rights gains of Vienna and to link them to later steps in international cooperation, including the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals.

Building an Office

Mary Robinson's first concern, if her mandate were to be advanced at all, had to be the building of an office, OHCHR. In its first years the High Commissioner was physically located alongside the United Nations Human Rights Centre in Geneva, the name given to the secretariat that serviced the UN human rights machinery including the treaty bodies, the Human Rights Commission, and its Sub-Commission. The relationship between the Centre and the new post was predictably fraught with problems of hierarchy and function. The solution, a merger of the two structures, came with the Annan reforms. Later the Swiss Government gifted new premises, the refurbished and graceful Palais Wilson, the original seat of the League of Nations.

Establishing a professional office in Geneva and at UN headquarters in New York required sustained attention to organizational, management, personnel, and budgetary issues, tasks that were as demanding, unglamorous, and time-consuming as they were vital. But the results over her five years, of which Mary Robinson was very proud, was to create a more effective and professional staff some five hundred strong and with higher morale than when she began. A major achievement was to successfully marry the internal secretariat functions with an external operational dimension for OHCHR that brought engagement with human rights issues beyond the inevitably remote processes of the United Nations to country and regional levels. That engagement was intended to connect the work of United Nations human rights bodies, their decisions, and their recommendations with people and institutions within countries and regions. This vision of a "joined up" system of human rights protection is conveyed in many of her speeches.

Presence on the Ground

Human rights work within countries had begun to develop before the post of High Commissioner was established and took the form of human rights field presences in the rapidly developing peacekeeping and peace-building roles of the United Nations. It was the beginnings of such placements in the early 1990s that convinced Amnesty International of the need for a new post on human rights responsibilities within the United Nations. Amnesty International's advocacy of the post of High Commissioner was influential at the Vienna World Conference where the idea was endorsed. Under Ayala-Lasso, the first High Commissioner, the numbers of human rights specialists on the ground accelerated. Mary Robinson embraced the new development, her first field mission, in December 1997, being to visit her staff in Rwanda, where she had been as Head of State in 1994. One early initiative, which became an annual event, was to bring together the heads of field operations in Geneva to build common strategies and better communications between Geneva and the field. In line with evolving UN thinking, she advocated and encouraged the increasing integration of such human rights presences into the main UN operations working within countries and at regional levels.

Before the establishment of the position of High Commissioner, a trend had begun in states requesting technical and legal advice and assistance to establish national human rights protection and human rights training. The creation of the post of High Commissioner and the higher profile of human rights that followed Kofi Annan's reforms and Mary Robinson's appointment brought a dramatic increase in expressions of interest and in requests from states for such services. A large "technical assistance" program was established over her five years as High Commissioner and today represents a major contribution of the Office to human rights promotion and protection in the world.

Building on the advisory services and field presences, she sought over her years in the post to extend the contribution of OHCHR to global protection by establishing regional advisers based in the different world regions. The aim was to encourage regional cooperation in the implementation of international human rights standards and to increase the responsiveness of the Office to local needs.

The Search for Funds

A source of frustration, and one familiar to all United Nations activities, was the gap between the growing tasks assigned or taken on by OHCHR and the budget allocated to carry them out. Insufficiency of funds was one trigger that led Mary Robinson not to seek an extension of her term. OHCHR works, as the rest of the UN does, on a biennial budget allocation. The allocation from the regular budget to OHCHR for 2002-3 was US$47.7 million, corresponding to 1.8 percent of the total UN biennial budget of US$2.6 billion. The regular or statutory budget counted for only 34 percent of OHCHR's annual expenditure in 2001, with 66 percent, or US$42.8 million, coming from voluntary funds. Voluntary funds are generated on a yearly basis by an appeal to states and foundations. While she lobbied for a larger slice of the regular budget, arguing that a share of less than 2 percent for human rights was unfair, Mary Robinson also initiated OHCHR's annual global appeal to donors to meet the needs of its burgeoning programs. It was a professionally managed, project-focused initiative that was combined with annual reporting back to the donors on the use made of their funds. Her fund-raising proved successful and was vital for OHCHR programs; it also strengthened the transparency and accountability of the Office. But she was not successful in securing a significant increase in the regular budget and changing the worrying reliance of a UN department for the greater part of its budget on voluntary contributions from, in the main, a few large donors.

Moral Leadership

The expectation of many countries and in particular human rights NGOs, of the new post of High Commissioner was not focused alone on organization, funding, or programs. They also wanted a moral voice that would give leadership to an international human rights community that was growing rapidly during the 1990s. They wanted an authoritative voice that would support grassroots and international efforts to move states to adopt and implement pro-human-rights policies and one that could galvanize the international community to take action on widescale human rights violations in the world. Mary Robinson sought to provide that leadership.

Despite the often scattershot coverage by global media of human rights issues, the wretched conditions and suffering of millions are for the most part ignored. That is the case with violations caused by political oppression, racial discrimination, or religious persecution and even more so where the daily denial of rights flows from poverty, food insecurity, and lack of clean water, sanitation, shelter, and education. The need to end oppression and to address the often structural sources of hopelessness in the lives of many were at the heart of Mary Robinson's leadership on human rights.

Denouncing human rights violations is rarely popular with impugned governments, armed opposition, or new culprits, such as multinational corporations. But Mary Robinson spoke out where it was necessary and whether the abuses occurred in developed or developing countries. At the same time she worked to change conditions of oppression and violation, engaging, for example, with countries through OHCHR programs to strengthen national capacity, human rights education, and protection. She built partnerships with civil society organizations and local human rights activists, and she played an influential role in encouraging businesses to become involved in the Secretary General's Global Compact on upholding human rights, labor, and environmental standards.

Deadly Conflict

But at the same time, like other leaders of the international community, including the United Nations Secretary General, she also had to react to emergency events, in particular the sudden eruption of violence and conflict with their inevitable cost in large-scale human rights violation. Ayala-Lasso, the first High Commissioner, took up his position in April 1994, the month that the Rwandan genocide began. Engagement by OHCHR with gross violations dates from that unimaginable horror. Mary Robinson's term saw other crises and bloodshed, including in Chechnya, East Timor, the Great Lakes region of Africa, Sierra Leone, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Her efforts to ensure protection for victims and to press for the accountability of perpetrators in such conflicts are recorded in this book. At the same time she sought greater commitment by all for the prevention of conflict as the true antidote to large-scale human rights violation. Prevention is a theme that links her reflections in this book on the different conflicts that OHCHR investigated and which she personally visited and reported on.

The Organization of the Book

The edited speeches and other material in the book are organized thematically. This approach serves to underline continuity between the human rights challenges faced by Mary Robinson as High Commissioner and the challenges that face her successors. While the collection reflects her remarkable personality and her distinctive priorities, to a large extent the human rights challenges she tackled endure. A further advantage of a thematic approach is that it conveys vividly the enormous and diverse range of issues and initiatives that are now encompassed in the work of OHCHR. The sheer range of ideas, projects, and programs chronicled in these pages, many the legacy of Mary Robinson, offers also an in-depth introduction to the contemporary world of human rights theory and practice. The huge responsibilities given to the post are not widely understood, nor are the institutional and financial constraints under which the High Commissioner operates. This collection of texts should help also to bring out these dimensions.

After her time as High Commissioner had ended, and as she promised, Mary Robinson has continued in her independent capacity as a human rights activist to work for universal human rights. The final chapter of the book traces her thinking on globalization and human rights. The need to instill an ethical dimension into globalization, which for her requires as a minimum the incorporation of international human rights legal standards and principles, has become her present field of endeavor. Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, which she now leads, represents an imaginative, and even a natural progression from her role as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.