Criticism by pro-Israel groups unjust, says Robinson


FORMER PRESIDENT Mary Robinson has described as “unjust and unwarranted” criticism from American pro-Israel groups of President Barack Obama’s award to her of the medal of freedom, the highest civilian award in the US.

Mrs Robinson, who will receive the award with 16 others at a White House ceremony next week, told The Irish Times that she was “hurt and dismayed” by accusations that she had shown a consistent bias against Israel and failed to prevent anti-Semitic declarations at an anti-racism summit in Durban in 2001.

“I have made it absolutely clear and I’ve been totally consistent on this, that human rights is not on the side of either the Israelis or the Palestinians – it’s on the side of both,” she said.

“If you’re a human rights person, you have to be fair, you have to be unbiased when you’re addressing situations of human rights violations. That’s the pledge of my life and that’s what I live by.”

New York congressman Eliot Engel, a long-standing supporter of Sinn Féin, this week joined the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), Washington’s most influential pro-Israel lobby group, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organisation of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition in criticising the award to Mrs Robinson.

Aipac said in a statement that Mrs Robinson, who was UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002, had mismanaged the Durban conference, prompting the US and Israel to walk out in protest against anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist statements. “I wish that I could have done more but I did everything in my power,” Mrs Robinson said of the conference yesterday.

“The conference was run by the member states, particularly by South Africa as the chair. So all key meetings and all decisions at the official level were made by governments and I wasn’t present when they were arguing about whether anti-Semitic language which was in brackets should be included. I just wasn’t there. But I did finally, after the United States and Israel had withdrawn, persuade South Africa to take this language out immediately and to continue with the conference. And that is what happened. So the formal Durban declaration is without any anti-Semitic language of any kind and it was welcomed by Shimon Peres when it was made known on 8th September 2001.”

Aipac – which did not immediately respond to an interview request yesterday – also criticised a resolution adopted in 2002 by the UN Human Rights Commission, with the support of a number of European countries, that affirmed the right of Palestinians “to resist the Israeli occupation in order to free its land and be able to exercise its right of self-determination”. Mrs Robinson said that, as UN human rights commissioner, she had no influence over the Human Rights Commission.

“ Any resolutions of the Human Rights Commission, I played no part in,” she said. “Following that resolution, which related to the events in Jenin at the time, I did try to have a complete, impartial, high-level group going in order to take this out of divisive politics and the polarisation that was happening . . . and the Israeli government wouldn’t allow it. That again was a leadership role in which I was trying to prevent the kind of polarisation which was going on and I believe that I was acting purely in a principled, human rights way with no bias, which I am incapable of.”

The White House defended the decision to award the medal of freedom to Mrs Robinson. “She is somebody whom we are honouring as a prominent crusader of women’s rights in Ireland and throughout the world,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

“There are statements that obviously she has made that the president doesn’t agree with and that’s probably true for a number of the people that the president is recognising for their lifetime contributions.”