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.
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
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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