Mary Robinson, born Mary Therese Bourke on May 21, 1944, in Ballina, County Mayo, is a leading advocate of human rights. She promotes the elimination of social and economic injustice worldwide and was the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002. She was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and holds law degrees from the King’s Inns in Dublin (1967) and an L.L.M. from Harvard University (1968). The Irish famine and sectarian strife in Ireland were early important influences. Her family included members of the Irish Anglican Church and of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as servants of the Crown and rebels against it. Robinson developed an independent spirit and proved to be an innovative politician and human rights spokesperson. Her interest in poverty, equal opportunity, and her commitment to human rights characterize her legal, political, and public advocacy roles throughout her career.
Mary Robinson was appointed Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1969, and later became chancellor of Trinity College. She married William Robinson in 1970; they have three children. She began her political career with election to the Dublin City Council, and for 20 years she was a senator in the Irish Parliament. She became a member of important legislative committees and advocated a series of civil rights measures, such as liberalizing laws on the availability of contraceptives and removing restrictions on women’s rights. Her willingness to speak out forcefully on controversial issues characterizes her professional career. In 1990, she was elected as the seventh president of Ireland, the first woman and the first member of the Labour Party to hold that office.
Her presidency (1990–1997) strengthened Ireland’s political, cultural, and economic links with countries worldwide and improved Anglo-Irish relations. Her extensive trips and meetings with diverse Irish and international groups revitalized the office of the presidency. For example, in keeping with an Irish folk tradition of placing a light in a darkened window to guide the path of strangers, Robinson put a symbolic light in her kitchen window in Aras an Uachtarain, the presidential residence, to remember Irish emigrants living around the world. This light, which was in public view, came to symbolize the strengthening of the link between the Irish homeland and its sons and daughters living around the world. From meeting with leaders of different political backgrounds in Northern Ireland to working toward improving the Irish economy, Robinson proved a popular, effective president. As president of Ireland, Robinson visited Somalia in 1992 and campaigned to alleviate famine; 2 years later, she was the first world leader to visit Rwanda, bringing attention to the ongoing crisis and the need for relief in the aftermath of the genocide.
At the request of Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson became the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 1997 and served 5 years in that position. Just as she had earlier, as president of Ireland, she brought energy and vision to the position. When the third U.N. High Commissioner (December 20, 1993) approved the High Commission for the Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights (Resolution 48/141), Robinson was a highly visible, persuasive voice. She argued for the importance of international human rights, of implementing reforms in Geneva and New York offices, and of focusing on economic and social rights and the right to development. Robinson traveled extensively, delivering speeches and arguing the case for human rights around the world.
Robinson emphasized the need for fresh viewpoints and initiatives. In contrast to the decades of Cold War stalemates over political versus economic and other rights, Robinson emphasized the interdependence and importance of acknowledging the universal and indivisible nature of all people’s rights, supporting the Vienna Declaration Programme of Action and the Millenium goals. Robinson continued to travel widely, encouraging grassroots organization and non-governmental organizations and urging governments to stop human rights abuses and foster human development. Her outspokenness resulted in criticism from various governments and special interests throughout her 5 years as high commissioner. Robinson’s term coincided with violence and human rights abuses in Chechnya, East Timor and the Great Lakes region of Africa and in the Middle East, Sierra Leone, and the Balkans. While emphasizing prevention in her speeches, she also brought a voice of urgency and compassion to the victims of human rights violations. At times, Robinson was frustrated by political constraints, administrative and operational challenges, insufficient funding, and other impediments to more fully realizing her human rights vision. In 2001, after announcing she was not seeking a second term as high commissioner, she continued in the post an additional year at the request of Kofi Annan and others until a new high commissioner, Louise Arbour, was appointed.
Currently, Mary Robinson leads Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, where she continues to carry forward her moral leadership and advocacy work. The initiative’s goals include attempting to foster collaboration between civil society, government, business, and economic forums to address social, political, and economic issues.
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