Obama presents Medal of Freedom to 'crusader for rights' Robinson

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama has hailed former president Mary Robinson as “an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten…

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama has hailed former president Mary Robinson as “an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored” who is showing the way to a better future for the world.

Presenting Mrs Robinson with the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour, Mr Obama suggested that her family background may have helped to prepare her for life as a civil rights campaigner.

“The only girl in a family of four brothers, Mary Robinson learned early on what it takes to make sure all voices are heard. As a crusader for women and those without a voice in Ireland, Mary Robinson was the first woman elected President of Ireland, before being appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,” he said.

“When she travelled abroad as president, she would place a light in her window that would draw people of Irish descent to pass by below. Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering, but illuminated a better future for our world.”

Mrs Robinson was one of 16 recipients of the Medal of Freedom at yesterday’s ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Others included physicist Stephen Hawking, actor Sidney Poitier, tennis player Billie Jean King, former supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Connor and South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The medal was awarded posthumously to the openly gay politician Harvey Milk, who was murdered in 1978, and to former Republican senator Jack Kemp. Kara Kennedy accepted the medal on behalf of her father, Senator Edward Kennedy, who is receiving treatment for brain cancer.

Mrs Robinson received yesterday’s award in the face of a noisy campaign against her by conservative, pro-Israel groups in the US. The American Israel Political Action Committee (Aipac) expressed “disappointment” with Mr Obama’s decision to honour Mrs Robinson, citing her role in a 2001 conference on racism in Durban, which was marred by displays of anti-Semitism.

Forty-five Republican members of congress asked Mr Obama to withdraw the award, complaining that Mrs Robinson had shown a consistent bias against Israel.

New York congressmen Peter King and Eliot Engel, both long-standing supporters of Sinn Féin, joined in the attack on the former president’s record.

In recent days, however, a succession of prominent Jewish-Americans wrote to Mr Obama praising the decision to honour Mrs Robinson and a number of Israeli human rights groups expressed support for her.

Mr Obama chatted and laughed with Mrs Robinson as the official citation was read out and embraced her after presenting the medal.

“For Mary Robinson, the fight to end discrimination and suffering is an urgent moral imperative. She has been a trail-blazing crusader for women’s rights in Ireland and a forceful advocate for equality and human rights around the world,” the citation said.

“Whether courageously visiting conflict-stricken regions, or working to inject concern for human rights into business and economic development, Mary Robinson continues this important work today, urging citizens and nations to make common cause for justice.”