Mrs Robinson's accolade


‘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.” President Barack Obama’s tribute to Mrs Robinson at the White House this week when he presented her with the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour, was apt and well-deserved.

Their shared commitment to political engagement based on human rights and the rule of law makes this a significant statement by Mr Obama, given the criticisms voiced by conservative Jewish groups of Mrs Robinson’s role in handling the United Nations 2001 Durban conference on racism, which was disrupted by displays of anti-Semitism. Mr Obama nominated her in spite of them and refused to withdraw in face of their pressure. This marks the even-handed approach he has taken to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just as his accentuation of human rights practice in her case differentiates his administration’s policies from those of George Bush, who opposed giving her a second term as the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.

The practical and campaigning aspect of Mrs Robinson’s record is well expressed in this citation. Her work has concentrated on the marginalised. She has frequently reminded relatively privileged audiences in their own interests not to overlook the rights and voices of people ignored by established political and media discourse, especially those of courageous women. That is precisely the role of human rights campaigning. And it is also important to record how this can cast light on how to make a better future for everybody – a feature of her career in law, academia and advocacy, as in her representative roles as president of Ireland and for the UN.

That both Mr Obama and Mrs Robinson are in the radical liberal part of the political spectrum helps explain the criticisms made of her on this occasion. The conservative Jewish groups expressing them were privileged by the Bush administration and are not reconciled to Mr Obama’s more critical policy towards Israel. Far from capitulating to anti-Semitism at the Durban conference, she resisted it and helped convince state delegations to do likewise. Mrs Robinson’s description of these Jewish groups as bullying is echoed by more liberal ones in the US and elsewhere who defended her record and said such criticism “distracts attention from the real issues that need to be addressed to foster peace and security for Israel and its neighbours”.