Mary Robinson was the youngest ever professor of law at Trinity College, Dublin (1969-75), the first woman President of the Republic of Ireland (1990-97), and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997- 2002). Despite a conservative Roman Catholic family background, she became a fiercely independent, non-conformist legislator and global supporter of human rights and the environment. Exhibiting her ever-present sense of humor, she attributed her lifelong interest in human rights to her family position among five children, “wedged between four brothers.”
The daughter of two physicians, Mary Bourke grew up in County Mayo, Ireland, where she attended an elite convent school, but, in the words of a Guardian interview in March 2010, her higher education, “a law degree at Trinity Dublin, then a master’s at Harvard during the Vietnam War—shook all the assumptions she had grown up with.”
At age 25, as a Trinity College law professor, she gained a seat in the Irish Senate, serving from 1969 to 1976 and again from 1985 to 1989. Known for her intense devotion to moral authority, liberal issues, and non-conformity, early in her career she daringly “took on every sacred cow: contraception, women’s rights, abortion, gay rights” and the status of children. She boldly supported, sometimes without success, legislation to allow women to serve as jurors, to change strict Irish laws on contraceptives, to introduce a “right to life” amendment, to legitimize divorce, to provide rights for children born outside marriage, to grant the vote to 18-year olds, to protect archaeological sites from building developers, and to modify wiretaps on journalists.
Liberal causes were at the heart of her entire career. She never relinquished her support for women. Irish women in particular, she said, “felt themselves outside history,” and when she assumed the presidency of the republic, she declared they would henceforth be “written back” into it. Many of her causes directly impacted the lives of women. Her own success in acquiring positions in education and government, often posts never before held by a woman, brought new respect and dignity to the position of women everywhere in society.
She was a non-conformist in her personal as well as her public life. A Catholic, she attended Trinity College Dublin when attendance by Catholics at the predominantly Protestant university was disapproved by the Irish Catholic hierarchy. Though her parents did not approve her choice of a husband and declined to attend her wedding, she nevertheless married Protestant Nicholas Robinson. Her family became staunch supporters of the marriage three months later.
Despite frequently finding herself on the losing side of proposed legislation and facing virulent criticism, she stuck to her principles. She favored the Irish Republic, but she understood Northern Irish Unionist feelings. She incurred fierce criticism when she shook the hand of provisional Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams on a trip to Belfast. She spoke to everyone and listened to all sides.
As president of Ireland and head of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Mary Robinson remained independent. She brought new life to each position. In a lengthy presidential campaign, seeking to enlarge perceptions of the office, she received support from both liberal and conservative parties. Unlike previous presidents, she traveled widely, not only to Northern Ireland, but abroad as well—notably to Italy to visit the Pope. She was the first head of state to visit starving Somalia in 1992, and the first to visit Rwanda following the genocide of 1994. She received visitors never before invited at the presidential residence. Although originally an unlikely presidential candidate, she was rewarded, halfway through her term in office, with an unprecedented popularity rating of 93 percent.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan actively sought out (some say “head-hunted”) President Mary Robinson to become UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She resigned the presidency to assume the post in1997, planning to refocus the organization by setting the “human rights agenda within the organization and internationally.”
As Human Rights Commissioner, Robinson was relentlessly outspoken, criticizing Irish demands for special permits for non-European Union citizens and attacking capital punishment in the United States. She traveled widely, visiting South Africa, Rwanda, Columbia, Cambodia, and China (another first). She presided over the 2001 Conference against Racism in South Africa, a meeting perceived by some, particularly the United States, as anti-Semitic. The United States also objected to Robinson’s criticism of its war on terror as a violation of human rights, an objection Robinson said led to her resignation as High Commissioner in 2002.
Throughout her career Mary Robinson won numerous prizes, awards, and honors and gave many distinguished lectures around the globe. In 1997 she became the first female Chancellor of the University of Dublin. She received the Sydney Peace Prize in 2002 and the Otto Hahn Peace Medal of the Berlin United Nations Association in 2005. In 2009 she was awarded the Inamori Ethics Prize by Case Western Reserve University. In 2005 she lectured on human rights and “ethical globalization” at the University of San Diego’s Institute for Peace and Justice and on 21st century challenges to human rights at Case Western Reserve. She taught international human rights at Columbia University and has given visiting lectures at many other colleges and universities.
When in 2009 President Barack Obama awarded Robinson the presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States, critics, particularly from certain American and European Jewish groups, including AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the European Jewish Congress, and John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations, attacked her. Others, such as US Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin and other legislators defended the award as did then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Oxfam Confederation, and the Council of Women World Leaders.
Robinson has received dozens of honorary degrees from all over the world, most recently from Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts at the end of May. Among universities granting her honorary degrees are the University of Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, McGill, and Duke Universities; and in 2010, the American University in Cairo.
Mary Robinson stepped down as UN Human Rights Commissioner in 2002 with more than a little pressure from countries like the United States, whose early measures in the name of “the war against terror” she had labeled human rights abuses. Realizing the unpopularity of certain decisions, she said she was “there to do a job, not to keep a job,” and immediately took her pursuit of human rights to the private sector, founding and directing an advocacy organization she called Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative.
From 2002 to 2010 Realizing Rights, based in New York, followed its mission: “. . . to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage.” Emphasizing the environment the group, joining with business and corporate leaders, promoted “climate justice,” a decent work agenda, access to health care services, and an increase in women’s leadership.
After bringing Realizing Rights, to a planned end in 2010, Robinson returned to Dublin and set up yet another human rights organization. She is currently president of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice (MRFCJ), which focuses on “the struggle to secure global justice for those many victims of climate change who are usually forgotten—the poor, the disempowered and the marginalized across the world.” The foundation helps “the world’s most vulnerable [who are] facing greater droughts, floods, hunger and disease, despite being the least responsible for causing climate change.”
Mary Robinson’s pursuit of human rights never ends. In a March 2011 interview with The Guardian,she spoke of her quest for moral authority in all her endeavors. Speaking of her recent work with the Elders—a group of 12 outstanding world leaders chaired by Desmond Tutu and including former US President Jimmy Carter and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who use their collective wisdom “to alleviate human suffering, particulalrly [that] caused by armed conflict, extreme poverty, injustice, or intolerance”—she declared she is “so honored and so passrionate” about all her work because she feels such “a terrible sense of urgency.”