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Mary Robinson Spotlights Human Rights Abuses in Darfur

by William Hughes Saturday, Nov. 04, 2006 at 11:39 AM

Before the word “Feminist” became fashionable, Mary Robinson, a Barrister, legislator and educator, was shaking up the “conservative” establishment in the Republic of Ireland. After serving a term as its first female President, she became the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. Today, human rights, on a global scale, is her cause. On Nov. 1, 2006, in a lecture at Adelphi, MD, she exposed human rights atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere.

   Mary Robinson Spo...
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“ universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home.” - Eleanor Roosevelt (1)

Adelphi, MD - On the evening of Nov. 1, 2006, Mary Robinson, the first female President of Ireland (1990-97), and a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), gave a lecture. It was sponsored by the U. of Maryland University College (UMUC), an institution with "3,300 faculty members and 90,000 students worldwide." (2) Robinson's talk was entitled, “Human Rights and Globalization.” The event was held in the school’s auditorium, which was filled to near capacity. Ms. Susan C. Aldridge, UMUC’s President, introduced Robinson, who spoke for about an hour. She covered a wide array of topics ranging from the origins of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights to troubled hot spots around the world, in places like Tibet, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Grozny in Chechnya, the Balkans and Darfur.

Robinson began by recalling the key role of the late Eleanor Roosevelt, (the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt), in shaping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). (3) She said that although she wasn’t an attorney, Mrs. Roosevelt knew how to “boss” lawyers and eminent jurists around to get the job done. She helped this team of jurists "to adopt a real vision of values for our world." The global Charter on Rights was adopted on Dec. 10, 1948, in Paris, France. This was only three years after the creation of the UN itself. This is also why “Dec. 10th” is honored today as “Human Rights Day,” Robinson pointed out.

Trained for the law as a Barrister, Robinson hails from the market town of Ballina, in County Mayo, in the West of Ireland. Her parents were both physicians and her maiden name is Bourke. Robinson joked that she had to learn about human rights early on because she “was wedged in between four brothers. Two older and two younger.” She grew up in a mostly rural area, which is within a short automobile ride of the sprawling Ox Mountains, the pristine Bay of Killaha and the Atlantic Ocean. The salmon-filled Moy River flows through Ballina. Its small cemetery, Leigue, located on the fringe of the town, holds the remains of two of Ireland’s legendary IRA “Hunger Strikes” from the 70s, Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg. (4) Robinson admitted that she has passed her “60th birthday” and is very proud of now being “a grandmother.” After serving for 20 years in the Irish Republic's Senate, (1969-89), she began to specialize in Human Rights Law, while raising a family, and teaching Constitutional Law at Dublin University. Today, among a host of other projects, Robinson is the architect and one of the moving forces behind the Ethical Global Initiative (EGI). It advocates “the integration of human rights, gender sensitivity, and enhanced accountability into efforts addressing global challenges and governance.” (5)

Robinson, a "Feminist," in a then-very "conservative" country, before the word was fashionable, is working on creating a process for having “Human Rights"-the words themselves-invoke “more depth and more coherence” for everyone. She underscored how the UDHR has been adopted and endorsed by every country in the world, but that, she quickly added, is a lot different then having it “implemented” by every country. Robinson reports that when she held the position of UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, it was a very small office, with little or no enforcement power. She made it her personal business to go to the countries where human rights were being egregiously violated, so that she could be seen, in her official capacity, as identifying with the “victims” of abuse. (6)

Two of the articles of the UDHR have a lot of meaning for Robinson. They are Article 1 and Article 29 (Subsection 1), and she read both of them to the audience. First, Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Then, Article 29 (1): “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” Dignity, she emphasized, was a “very important concept" to the drafters of the document. All the peoples of the world, Robinson urged, should be made aware that the UDHR "is their birthright."

As to where we are today on that issue, Robinson said: "We know from UNICEF...that more than 30,000 children, under five [years of age], die every day in our world of preventable diseases or...hunger," Robinson said. "This is a silent Tsunami every week and is therefore 52 silent Tsunamis every year. To me, that is a more meaningful figure then talking about a billion people living on less than a dollar a day. We get lost in all of the statistics. But, I think we can all grasp the unnecessary deaths of children--very often painfully. We do have a world that hasn't lived up to Mrs. Roosevelt's vision and [of] her eminent jurists."

It was during the Q&A period, when the controversial subject of Darfur came up. (7) Robinson said in response to a question on its status: “The situation in Darfur is far worse than we are hearing and reading about. It is absolutely catastrophic at the moment. It is hard to explain how much worse it was from six months ago even. A number of those who were trying to help-aid workers-can no longer be there because of security. So, they are squeezed out. Save-the-Children, Oxfam are finding it much more difficult to be there. Politically, Sudan is getting off the hook altogether and part of it has to do with the fact that the oil money [is] now [coming] into Sudan, [along with] the Chinese investment and Khartoum [is] booming. It is though Darfur is somehow a forgotten backwater again. And it is really very difficult. And I do think that the United States has tried...But somehow it is not enough at all. We are seeing the unforgiveable-the never again-again. And just because they are poor and they are black, and they are voiceless, it’s happening. Human beings are being killed. Women are being raped. Villages are being savaged every day and it is getting worse...The United States, the E.U., the countries of the world, honestly, have to, really, wake-up...As far as I am concerned, it [Darfur] is a disgrace! It is absolutely unacceptable. And I don’t have an easy answer...Let’s get Darfur up on as high a list as possible. Sudan cares about public opinion. It’s not getting the messages that it should be getting about what is happening in Darfur. That has to change.” (8)

Robinson finished her informative lecture by reading some passages from Seamus Heaney's poem, "The Republic of Conscience." (9) It calls for each of us, in our own lives, to fight to protect and promote human rights and to be "an Ambassador of Conscience." This year's awardee, presented by Amnesty International (AI), which has adopted the poem as one of its themes, is Nelson Mandela, one of South Africa's greatest sons. He has demanded that the HIV/AIDS epidemic be treated as a "human rights" issue and require "urgent global concern." (10)

Thanks to human rights champions, like Robinson, AI's honoree, such as Mandela, and so many other unsung heroes, the world is better off. The governmental bullies do back off and retreat, but, unfortunately, only temporarily. More, much more, remains to be done in this important arena. Robinson's' crusade for making the UDHR a global code to protect every individual on the planet, as in a solemn and legally enforceable "birthright" is central, as is the need for every country to strictly abide by its provisions, or to face blame, shame and punishment. Only in this way can we end what Robinson refers to as the "cycle of impunity." (11)






5. Pamphlet, UMUC’s “Academic Speaker Series" and

6. and

7. and




11. and

© William Hughes 2006.

William Hughes is the author of “Saying ‘No’ to the War Party” (IUniverse, Inc.). He can be reached at

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