Former Irish president Robinson: Climate change deniers should see what I’ve seen
By Abdon M. Pallasch Political Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org October 25, 2011 6:32PM
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, talks about human rights and the world environment during an interview at the University Club, 76 E. Monroe, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times
Updated: October 25, 2011 9:14PM
Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, tells people things they don’t want to hear.
When she was the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, she rebuked the Israeli government for their treatment of Palestinians. She criticized the Bush Administration’s handling of “enemy combatants” in the days after 9-11.
“The tendency … was to see human rights as a problem for poor developing countries or China or Colombia,” Robinson told the Sun-Times. “When I was asked, as High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘What’s the worst country for human rights?’ I would say, ‘Every country has problems, including Ireland, including the United States.’ It’s tough, but that’s the way it has to be.”
Robinson found a very receptive audience at the University Club last week as she told students and faculty of Dominican University’s Brennan School of Business of her – and the United Nation’s – new crusade to hold corporations responsible for the human rights of their workers.
“The major corporations know about this work and feel they are on the right side of it,” Robinson said. “The trouble is, if you take corporations with long supply chains like Nike or The Gap, who import from small sweat shops in Pakistan or in China, they find it very difficult to ensure that human rights standards are being observed, health and safety, other standards.”
The new framework will monitor corporations based all over the world, including new ones from China, and those with bad human rights records will likely find those records publicized by non-profit groups urging boycotts, Robinson said.
Robinson brought a message for climate change deniers in the United States: Follow her to the third world and see the impact of climate change.
Told that all major Republican candidates for U.S. president save one – former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman – say they are not convinced that man-made carbon emissions are changing the climate, Robinson shook her head and said, “That does not do the United States any credit internationally.”
“I wish that some of the deniers from this country would actually go and spend a week in some of the communities that I’m in frequently, where the rains don’t come any more, or there’s prolonged drought and then flash-flooding,” Robinson said. “The climate shocks in poor communities are very, very significant. It does bother me when I hear people who have no perception of that denying that the climate is changing.”
Robinson’s foundation, Climate Justice, takes her to Bangladesh and Liberia, where flooding has killed people and make roads unusable. Her resume runs off the page with non-profit, do-gooder organizations she travels the world for.
She is one of a dozen senior diplomats Nelson Mandela gathered together along with Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu as “The Elders” to troubleshoot around the world. She has been traveling to Africa and Asia to work on the problem of girls as young as eight being pushed into arranged marriages.
“Ten million girls under 18 are married every year,” she said. “One thing I’m learning from Desmond Tutu is the importance of humor: He uses humor all the time … and when people are laughing he comes in with the serious point, and they are relaxed and there is a trust there. I’m just learning.”
President Barack Obama awarded Tutu and Robinson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. A few conservative Jewish groups protested, saying that as secretary general of the 2001 UN conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, Robinson failed to squelch anti-Semitic protests in the streets – even though Robinson spoke out often against anti-Semitism at the conference and excised all anti-Semitic language from the final report.
“It hurts when you get that kind of accusation,” Robinson said. “I was very hurt at the time of the presidential medal when it all suddenly surfaced again. It surfaced for about a day with Archbishop Tutu [who was also a leader of the conference] and then it was realized that the [Congressional] Black Caucus would not like Archbishop Tutu to be part of this, so we went completely silent on him and completely focused on me.”
The realization actually made her feel better, she said.
“That was kind of re-assuring for me: this was purely political. It had nothing to do with me, it was actually trying to hurt Obama,” Robinson said. “When you know you’re being used to hurt somebody else, I’m not saying its pleasant, but it just shows you: this is just a dirty game. We did succeed — that’s the irony. The agenda of Durban is a very good agenda for the world, but unfortunately, three days later were the terrible attacks of 9-11.”
Robinson’s office immediately condemned the 9-11 attackers and urged they be brought to justice. But her office wanted them targeted as criminals and Robinson spoke out against the United States declaring a broader “War on Terror” that would lead to what she called a “War of Choice” in Iraq instead of the source of the attacks. The Bush administration resented her voice of dissent as it pushed through the PATRIOT act giving itself new powers to investigate terrorism.
“It was lonely, I have to say, in the initial days when the PATRIOT act went through with almost no [opposition],” she said. “Those early days were tough, but the great thing about a democracy like the United States is, quite quickly, the counter-view sets in.”
Now Robinson feels welcomed in the United States, especially in Chicago where she praises the successive administrations of Mayor Daley and Mayor Emanuel for the green roofs and other environmental initiatives. Chicago is one of the first places she was invited to speak after being elected president of Ireland in 1990.
“When I come to Chicago, I know that I am at home as an Irish person,” she told the Dominican University crowd which included a significant number of Irish-Americans.
Robinson refused to be drawn out on her preference among her old friends running against each other for her former gig as president of Ireland, or the presidential election in this country, though she said, “I’m a fan of President Obama. He gave me the presidential medal after all.”
Obama has done much to restore America’s image around the world from where it had fallen during the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, she said. She praised Obama’s speech in Cairo in which he said America and the Muslim world should move forward in “mutual respect” as one Muslim leaders cite to her in her travels.