Mary Robinson: Human Rights Crusader
Published on Tuesday, September 3, 2002 in the Boston Globe
Mary Robinson:
Human Rights Crusader

MARY ROBINSON, United Nations high commissioner for human rights, will step down from her position on Sept. 11. The date is ironic for more than its obvious symbolism, as much criticism of Robinson has stemmed from her questioning of the US war against terrorism. Despite the difficulty of heading an underfunded human rights commission in a vast international organization, Robinson has managed to be an outspoken advocate for human rights worldwide.

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Appointed in 1997, Robinson's positions have drawn backlash from such countries as Israel, Russia, and the United States. She has repeatedly criticized the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, sparking Israeli officials to declare Robinson biased. Following a visit to Chechnya in 2000, Robinson released a report to the UN Human Rights Commission that resulted in the censuring of Russia, one of only five permanent members of the UN Security Council, for violating human rights there.

Since last Sept. 11, Robinson, a former president of Ireland, has expressed concern over the potential loss of human rights in the war against terror. In a Jan. 6 speech at the John F. Kennedy Library, Robinson said, ''If human rights are respected ... conflict, terrorism and war can be prevented.'' This assertion garnered harsh criticism from US officials. Yet Robinson's desire to focus on the fundamental causes of terrorism demonstrated her commitment to its eradication.

Robinson later condemned US detention of terrorist suspects without detainee indictments, citing the need for ''translating intelligence information into evidence that is acceptable in courts of law.'' She called for support of human rights despite the climate of fear, stating that, ''even in the case of prolonged terrorism, the protection of human rights requires international oversight.'' Robinson's willingness to challenge the Bush administration, at a time when so few would for fear of seeming unpatriotic, is laudable.

The position of high commissioner is a difficult one. Arthur C. Helton, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says human rights advocates have been pleased with Robinson's efforts, but adds that even her ''ardent voice became lost in the bureaucracy'' of the United Nations. Despite the inherent frustrations of the position, the next high commissioner should uphold Robinson's legacy of agitation, continuing to challenge powerful countries others have shied away from, such as Russia and the United States.

Human rights can always be bettered; challenges of government malfeasance can be nothing but positive, as they highlight abuse and instigate reform. The heated criticism Robinson has received only underscores how well she fulfilled her mission.

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