December 15, 2003

Robinson delivers human rights challenge

By Elizabeth Cloud

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former United Nations (UN) high commissioner for human rights--and the woman Rosalynn Carter called a "champion for those in need" and a "pioneer in her own right"--delivered the eighth annual Rosalynn Carter Distinguished Lecture in Public Policy, Dec. 3 in Glenn Auditorium.

Robinson's lecture, "Getting Back on Track With the Global Human Rights Agenda," focused on the need to implement the human rights goals set by the UN in 2000, and the need for women to play a significant role in leading that movement.

Robinson long has been a leading figure for both women's and human rights activists. In addition to serving as Ireland's first female president and as the UN high commissioner, Robinson is a founding member and incoming chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. She has served on several international law and human rights committees and with her husband founded the Irish Centre for European Law at Trinity. Robinson has argued landmark cases before the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court in Luxembourg and in the Irish courts.

Although great strides have been made in the human rights arena since Robinson began her career in public service, many parts of the world are still in desperate situations, she said. She cited several issues in need of immediate attention, including the rise in the trafficking of women, the rapidly spreading AIDS epidemic and the vast amount of people living in poverty; some 800 million people exist on less than $1 a day, she said.

During Robinson's time as UN high commissioner, world leaders at the Millennium Summit set goals to combat such problems, specifically hunger, disease, poverty, discrimination against women, illiteracy and environmental degradation. Referred to as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they provide a structure for nations to work together to tackle the world's common problems.

"We built a framework, and the goals are there, but people are disconnected," Robinson said. "We made commitments, and now it is time to implement those commitments."

As they are outlined now, many of the MDGs are set for achievement in 2015. "At the rate we are going, some communities may not reach those goals in this century," Robinson said. "The business-as-usual scenario will not be enough if we want to succeed."

"Human rights begin close to home," she said. "Everyone has a duty to their community, but the community is no longer just your nearest neighbor--it is now global."

Robinson said the aftermath of 9/11 has cast a shadow on human rights. National security is a major issue confronting the human rights movement, she said.

"In both democratic and non-democratic societies there has been an erosion of human rights," she said. "But for many, insecurity is not situated in where a terrorist may attack next, but in where tomorrow's meal will come from. Instead of saying we are 'fighting a war on terror,' we need to focus on building human security for all."

Responsibility for addressing human rights issues and focusing on the MDGs lies in great part with rich and developed nations like Ireland and the United States, Robinson said, adding that such nations need to do more to support other governments' efforts at reform.

"How many of you have taken action?" she asked the audience, to which there was no response. "We must remind our governments of their commitments. We have lost direction, and it is time to regain our focus."

Robinson contended that women need to play a major role. Since so many problems in human rights affect or involve women, she said women need to step forward and become champions of the human rights agenda.

"The cause of women is inseparable from the cause of humanity," she said. "This is the century where women must give lead and make a difference. There are many insights, problem-solving capabilities and particular leadership qualities that women can bring. Women must find new ways, new methods of leading and solving problems."

"Women," Robinson said, "are like tea bags--you don't know how strong they are until they get in hot water."