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Human Rights, Not Privileges

Mary Robinson visits Boise

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Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, had no choice but to be a voice for human rights and women's rights. Wedged between two younger brothers and two older brothers, she was a champion of the underrepresented in her own family first, before becoming one in the courthouse, on the senate floor, in the Áras an Uachtaráin (Ireland's presidential quarters), in the United Nations, in Africa and throughout the world.

Robinson's remarkable career is marked by a rapid rise through the legal and political ranks and assiduous dedication to justice and equality. As a young adult, she came to view law as a means for creating social change. She earned a master of arts degree in 1967 from Trinity College in Dublin and then two law degrees--one from the King's Inn in Dublin and a second from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When appointed Reid Professor at Trinity College at just 25 years of age, she became Ireland's youngest professor of law.

When asked how she was able to ascend to positions of power so quickly at such a young age, Robinson chortled in a deep voice, "I was fortunate to attend Harvard Law School and to return to Ireland with 'the Harvard confidence,' otherwise known as 'the Harvard arrogance.'" This confidence led her to become a senator in Ireland campaigning on a wide range of causes--from removing the requirement that all women resign from the civil service upon marriage, to the rights of women to sit on juries and to access contraception. She also worked as one of the lawyers in the long battle to pass the Sexual Offenses Act of 1993, an act that decriminalized gay male sexual behavior.

Robinson explains her ability to promote such a progressive agenda in a religiously conservative country by saying, "These issues happen to be liberal issues. In spite of my very liberal record, I was elected in Ireland. That to me symbolized an openness in Ireland." Robinson was so well respected in Ireland that she ultimately ran for president in 1990 and won--becoming the country's first female to hold that office. In her seven years of service, she proved that the role of president could transcend a historical legacy of a mere figurehead; Robinson used her wide popularity and her position to elevate Ireland's role in the world and highlight global human rights issues. She drew parallels between the Great Irish Famine and contemporary nutrition, poverty and policy issues in developing countries.

Robinson's ongoing concern for the underserved landed her in Somalia following its 1992 crisis and in Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. Her global connections (especially to Africa) were so strong that she was nominated by the Irish government and urged by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to fill the post of United Nations' High Commissioner on Human Rights. Leaving the presidency six months early, Robinson served as High Commissioner until 2002.

Since then, she has been based in New York City, leading a project called Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative (EGI). "Realizing Rights" has two meanings she explains: 1. We need to realize we have rights and 2. These rights need to be realized by all--companies, governments and individuals. EGI focuses on human rights and gender issues in trade and development, migration and health issues (particularly the pandemic of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa).

Robinson also chairs the Council of Women World Leaders, a network of current and former female heads of state. "We are actively focusing on how women who have been past prime ministers and presidents can come together," Robinson says. Recently, she linked up with several Fortune 500 women and found them receptive to her global concerns. She wants women of influence to team up, regardless of whether they are involved in business, grassroots or political organizations. On the top of her list of concerns is how the AIDS epidemic in Africa affects women and girls--females ages 15 to 24 are four times more likely to be HIV positive than men, a fact Robinson attributes to gender and power inequities. When she talks to women, she stresses the importance of finding means to provide sufficient numbers of affordable female condoms in Africa.

On October 19, Robinson brings her global agenda and wealth of diplomatic experience to Boise as part of Boise State's Distinguished Lecture Series. Her talk bears a cumbersome title: "Social Responsibility and Ethical Globalization." She explains, "Really what I want to do is get back to Eleanor Roosevelt's vision of human rights. [Roosevelt] said that human rights had to manifest in small places close to home." Robinson believes we can all dismantle disparities; she subscribes to Thomas Friedman's credo that we now think about globalization in a worried way because nobody is really in charge. In a global community without a sole entity clearly at the helm, individuals have power. "Individuals can ruin a brand name if they want to," Robinson says. She cites Nike as an example of a corporation that was held accountable for human rights abuses and was economically impacted by consumer choices.

Robinson also wants to shed light on the fact that the global community was seriously committed to issues of human rights prior to 9/11. "In the beginning of this century, in September 2000, at the largest gathering of heads of state at the United Nations General Assembly, the Millennium Declaration made a commitment to make globalization work for all the world's people. The United Nations, The World Bank and International Monetary Fund adopted eight millennium goals, including eradicating poverty and hunger and achieving universal primary education," Robinson says. Other millennium goals include promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

Robinson finds it troubling that, "Nobody has heard of these goals that are supposed to bridge the terrible inequalities in the world. September 2001 took that focus away. The focus is entirely now on security, but we will not be secure if we are divided." Robinson is convinced that, "The terrorists must not win by eroding our human rights or democratic standards."

In spite of our preoccupation with security, Robinson believes the United States can be a leader on the human rights front. She remains hopeful that Americans will adopt The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which grants all humans the right to food, safe water, education and shelter. She is perplexed that, "In the United States, these are not considered rights; they are considered privileges."

Robinson holds up a critical lens to the United States with the clarity of an outsider. Now based in New York, she is hopeful about this country's future (though she declined to comment on the upcoming presidential election) and thankful to be living in a place where she is free to criticize without landing in jail. The ultimate expression of her optimism is reflected in her response to whether the Unites States is due for a female president: "Yes, sooner rather than later."

Mary Robinson, Tuesday, October 19, 7 p.m., free, Boise State Student Union Jordan Ballroom. Seating is on a first-come basis.

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