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A lawyer since the '60s, a senator for 20 years, and the president of Ireland for seven, Mary Robinson was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 until 2002. Robinson was invited to speak at McGill's Homecoming by the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies office. Her presentation to a packed auditorium on a weekend morning was called "Reflections on Human Rights, Human Development and Human Security."
Her last day of office as High Commissioner was to be on September 11, 2001, but it was extended by a year. After a two-week holiday in the fall of 2002, she went to New York City to get the ball rolling on the Ethical Globalization Initiative (EGI), of which she is executive director.
Robinson said to a McGill audience last Saturday that her Irish friends have told her "'That's a helluva hyphenated title for a very small project.'"
EGI's ambitions are not so small. By daring to juxtapose ethics with globalization, Robinson wants to bring human rights into the real issues of the day and to change the course of globalization.
In a lightly accented, warm voice, and very much at ease in front of 600 people, Robinson spoke of her convictions.
Although she's no longer with the UN, her organization takes its mandate from the UN Millennium Declaration.
The forward-thinking Millennium Summit in 2000 set forth ambitious development goals to be achieved by 2015, such as reducing extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $1 [US] a day), improving access to health care, promoting gender equity and attaining universal primary education. The priority of the declaration is "'to make globalization work for all the world's people,'" she quotes.
Progress has been made in just a few years, yet there are still tremendous inequities between countries. "A girl born in Japan has a reasonable chance of living to see the next century. A child born in Afghanistan has a one in four chance of dying before five years old," Robinson said. At the current rate of improvement, the UN Development Programme's 15-year goal will take 150 years to reach.
EGI wants to ensure that human rights are on the mainstream agenda in this era of corporatization and trade. They focus on the difficulties facing people on the move -- it's easier to move goods across borders than refugees or migrants, Robinson noted -- and the right to health and access to drugs and treatment.
Of the 30 million people with HIV/AIDS in Africa, only 70,000 have access to antiretroviral drugs. Over 10 million children are AIDS orphans, with the number expected to reach 20 million by the end of this decade.
With governments increasingly turning to privatizing previously public services, EGI encourages corporations to take an interest in human rights. But the debate over how corporations can help must be led by the businesses themselves, she said.
Already companies such as Barclays Bank, MTV and The Body Shop are supporting human rights and other development issues, Robinson says. She participated in the launch of Plural, a group of 15 companies in Sweden that are dedicated to promoting employment diversity. This follows Volvo Cars' involvement in the UN World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001, where Robinson challenged the corporate world to take action and contribute to the fight against xenophobia and discrimination.
Nonetheless, Robinson believes the primary responsibility still lies with the government to monitor corporations. For example, she said, "I worry a great deal about private prisons. I don't think any government should privatize them," referring to Costa Rica's recent actions. "But I'm not in charge of the whole world yet," she joked.
In an interview with the Reporter, Robinson explained how she became drawn to human rights.
Wedged between four brothers, she was treated as their equal by her doctor parents. Robinson's paternal grandfather was a lawyer who retired early, leaving time to "take cases on behalf of the small guy, tenant-against-landlord-type cases." Having no idea how to speak to children, he addressed her as an adult. "He spoke about law as important as a way of changing things. So from a very early stage I wanted to be a lawyer, to bring about change."
Although she's deeply concerned with the world's injustices and horrified by the corruption of some large corporations, she takes heart from the links being forged in civil society.
"I can actually track it. At the Rio [Earth] Summit in 1992, there's no reference to human rights. A year later, at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, there's no reference to the environment. In South Africa [at last year's Johannesburg Summit], the umbrella frame was that there's no sustainable development without human rights. We've come a long way."
"There's a worldwide linking of environmental activists, developmental experts and human rights advocates. And they're using the two frameworks, in particular environmental standards and human rights. Take an issue like water: access to water is a huge developmental issue, it's a huge environmental issue."
It's this world interconnectedness that Robinson sees progressive businesses fully understanding. "I think some business leaders are more thoughtful and have a longer time span than some politicians." They are "global operators who see the world and get feedback and want a safe environment for their staff. They're very aware of the issues."
Yet, Robinson is dismayed by media coverage of these issues, particularly in the U.S. "The media in the United States is very inward looking. When it covers events outside, it's through the prism of superpower politics."
"We in the human rights community have not taken the time to have really good discussions and debates with the media, and have training of journalists in what the international human rights system is really about. I'm more and more aware that relatively few media people who interview me really understand the world I'm talking about. And that's my fault as much as theirs.
"The media, the general population of the United States and, in particular, the US administration, do not understand and value properly economic, social and cultural rights."
Robinson has said before that the strength of academia lies in opening students' eyes to the world, and in examining their own values and beliefs.
Her best allies in the States are the medical schools in the top universities. "Because the medical schools have sent young doctors to work in developing countries and they've come back and said 'there's a right to food, a right to safe water.' It's medical schools who will be the motor for change."
University law schools are also crucial. "You have experts say it's not a human right unless you can go to court and assert it with your lawyer. And we're getting more individual court cases on right to food, right to health, right to education." Ultimately, she says, "it's about a legal commitment to progressively implement [law], without discrimination against women or against ethnic minorities."
Robinson's convictions have been formed by decades of activism, and she draws on her experience with the UN. But she said the difference now is that she acting as a private citizen. "The only power I have now is the power of ideas."
For more information on EGI, go to www.eginitiative.org.