You are here: "The one office that has to always speak truth to power" - UNA-UK interviews Mary Robinson

17 July 2018

UNA-UK was privileged to interview former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson as she spoke about the role of High Commissioner, how one becomes High Commissioner, and what advice she has for the next incumbent.

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"It’s what we need in the UN. It’s the one office that has to always speak truth to power and not compromise."

Q: How did you become High Commissioner? What sort of application process was followed?

A: Well, I was put forward as a candidate by the Irish government. I had decided not to go forward for a second seven-year term as President and shortly after I made that decision, the first High Commissioner, Ayala Lasso, resigned suddenly. He went back to Ecuador to be Foreign Minister. Human rights were what I was interested in so I asked the government if they would put me forward as a candidate. I was warned that the office was small and underfunded and difficult but I am a human rights person, so I really wanted to do it.

The Irish government canvassed very heavily for me. It was quite contested. I can’t remember how many candidates there were but there were quite a few. And there was a sense that it was a post that should be held by somebody from a developing country and so that was something that we were up against. And then in July 1997, Kofi Annan nominated me and I was shortly afterwards approved by the General Assembly. Then I went to see Kofi in New York and he put great pressure on me to start in September because he wanted the High Commissioner to be there for the UN General Assembly. I eventually succumbed to that pressure because I was afraid that if I didn’t he might change his mind and not appoint me. I regretted it later because it wasn’t a good idea to leave the Presidency early, it left a bad impression that I had somehow used the Presidency as a stepping stone to higher things, which wasn’t true. And once I got there it was clear these weren’t really “higher things”.

Q: Were all candidates nominated by their governments? Or was there a kind of search committee?   

A: My sense was no, they were nominated by government.

Q: And subsequently, has a Secretary-General ever asked your advice as to who might do the job?

A: Yes. On the last occasion certainly I was asked by the Deputy Secretary-General of the time.

Q: But not so far this time around?

A: No.

Q: What are you most proud of having achieved during your term as High Commissioner?  

A: I think what I am most pleased about is building a really good team to support the Office of the High Commissioner from the quite low, demoralised and rather wounded team I found when I arrived. The High Commissioner had left suddenly, the Deputy High Commissioner had been withdrawn, they had been fighting with each other, the office was completely underfunded, and there were other issues. Over the years, working together as a team, we built up the office.

And then, my last year, was very difficult. I had said I would only serve for one term and then I was persuaded to continue for a further year and that year began on 9/11; on that day. So, you can imagine, it was not an easy time but it is also one that I am very proud of because we stood up and spoke out.

Q: During your term did you find the war on terror to be challenging?

A: Yes, the war on terror was very difficult. After 9/11, my staff went to Ground Zero in New York and met the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the victims’ families and many of the people who were volunteering to help. Afterwards, we sat in the office and concluded that what had happened in those attacks were crimes against humanity. And I spoke out very publicly and pleaded with the Bush Administration not to declare a war on an abstraction like terrorism but to actually get the world, united as they were at that time, behind the United States in addressing the perpetrators.

When it became clear that Osama Bin Laden had led the attacks and the Taliban wouldn’t hand him over, I even said military action is allowable in response to a crime against humanity. You can justify the use of military force in Afghanistan. But, unfortunately, I was not listened to and Bush declared a war on terrorism and a huge number of people had their human rights abrogated to say the least. In the United States, this included the targeting of those who came from certain countries, what could be called ambiguity at best about torture, and a failure of the United States to uphold its commitments under the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on Civil and Political Rights. And I had to be quite a lonely voice speaking out on that with support from my team.

"I  pleaded with the Bush Administration not to declare a war on an abstraction like terrorism"

Q: What do you think is the toughest challenge that a High Commissioner faces today?

A: I think it is the difficulty of preserving the right balance, which the High Commissioner must preserve, in context of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I did my utmost. I was extremely concerned to be seen to be balanced. When I visited Israel and the Palestinian territories I was really determined and went out of my way to be fair. Initially, Israel was very pleased with my reports. But then, because the Palestinians seemed even more pleased, the Israeli government decided it was not pleased after all.

That haunted me during the Durban World Conference against Racism, where the Israeli delegation walked out due to the pernicious anti-Semitic rhetoric which was, unfortunately, very evident on the streets in South Africa at that time. Many South Africans equated the Palestinian cause with the anti-Apartheid cause and there were marches.

I did everything I could. I even involved Mandela to help me to raise the level of debate by producing a vision statement. We worked on that statement, he signed it, I signed it and we got more than 55 world leaders to sign it. I even refused to accept the recommendations of civil society at the conference, which was unheard of for a High Commissioner, because of the anti-Semitic language used. I went to a meeting with about 300 civil society activists, and I was warned by my colleagues not to go on the basis that they thought I would be torn apart if I said I would not accept their recommendations. I went, and I said: I cannot accept this and it breaks my heart because I am all for civil society but you cannot have this language. And still, I was tarred with the brush of having not been seen to be balanced. So that, in my view, is the most difficult challenge. I think that will haunt each High Commissioner for the foreseeable future.

Q: What is the toughest challenge?

A: "It is the difficulty of preserving the right balance in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian situation"

Q: What advice do you have for the next High Commissioner?

A: The only advice is the advice I got from a poet friend of mine. She said ‘If you become too popular in that job, remember, you are not doing a good job’.

Q: You also only served one full term. Do you think it’s a good amount of time to serve as High Commissioner?

A: It is physically and mentally very exhausting.

Q: Do you think it’s good practice to only serve one term? Just because it gives you that kind of independence?  

A: I’ve heard the point made. Maybe something that could be considered is to extend the term to six years on the basis that if you are doing the job well, you are inevitably going to alienate quite a number of countries. Therefore, it would be better to serve one term, but why not make it a bit longer? I think four years is a bit short. As no High Commissioner has served a full two terms, there is some merit in thinking about extending the term and saying that the High Commissioner will serve one term.

"If you are doing the job well, you are inevitably going to alienate quite a number of countries. Therefore, it would be better to serve one term"

Q: Do you have any idea of the sort of person that the next High Commissioner is likely to be?

A: I think it is important at this particularly difficult time to have someone who is courageous and prepared to speak out. I have been very supportive of the outgoing High Commissioner, in very difficult circumstances. I think he has flown the flag very well for human rights and is recognised as doing so. It’s a really tough job to do that. But it’s what we need in the UN. It’s the one office that has to always speak truth to power and not compromise.

Photo: Mary Robinson at her appointment in 1997, with the Secretary-General. Credit: UN Photo