At Swords’ Points With Repression


Shortly after being named to the United Nations’ top human rights post last fall, Mary Robinson called the brutal civil war in Algeria an “intolerable” catastrophe.

Given the scale of the butchery--an estimated 65,000 people, mainly civilians, have been slaughtered in six years of conflict between Islamic extremists and the government--her assessment seemed evident. But Mohammed-Salah Dembri, Algeria’s ambassador here at the U.N.'s European quarters, was outraged.

The war in Algeria was an internal affair, he declared, and Robinson ought to mind her own business.

Algerian officials didn’t stop there. They went to the U.N. committee that controls office space and, joining with other states worried about parking shortages in Geneva, blocked a request by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to move Robinson and her staff from the dark and overcrowded Palais de Nations here into larger, renovated quarters on the Lake Geneva shoreline.


The Algerian reaction might seem petty, but it is typical of the bear-pit mentality of U.N. politics, where every slight, snub or criticism is fodder for retaliation.

But Robinson, formerly Ireland’s president, also reacted typically. She refused to back down, and to this day maintains that the Algerian violence is of international concern. And having waited out the opposition, she and her staff are scheduled to move into their new quarters in August.

If Dembri had expected Robinson to retreat, he hadn’t read her resume closely. Persistence in the face of opposition has marked Robinson’s career from the time she entered politics as a 25-year-old member of the Irish Senate in 1969.

Now Robinson, 54, will need all that tenacity--and maybe more--to succeed in her new job as high commissioner for human rights. Her task: to reverse the U.N.'s sorry record as an advocate for civil rights and rule of law around the world.


The post places her at swords’ point with repressive governments all over the globe.

During her first six months on the job, in addition to offending the Algerian government, she has clashed with officials in Rwanda, Cambodia, Iran and Congo. And as if to show she doesn’t play favorites, she has criticized the accelerating pace of executions in the United States.

But her biggest obstacle may be the U.N. itself, with its inert bureaucracy, resistance to change and ruthless power politics. “I thought when I asked something be done, it actually would be done; I had no idea,” she noted with mock surprise about her first months on the job, although she is quick to assign blame to “my woeful ignorance of the appalling rules and regulations and barriers.”

To appreciate the undertaking facing Robinson, one has to understand that Annan is asking her to spearhead nothing less than a revolution within the organization.


While the U.N. this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a sort of Bill of Rights for the world, in truth the world body has done little to enforce it over the years.

For decades, the U.N. has been handing out money all over the globe without asking too many flinty questions about how it’s spent. U.N. development agencies, for example, have built thousands of courtrooms in developing nations without considering that they might be used to persecute political dissidents or ethnic minorities, critics say.

That’s been just fine with many member states. “Their attitude is, ‘We’re quite happy to take your money, but we don’t want to hear your criticism,’ ” summarized Mona Rishmawi, a Geneva-based human rights activist.

Now Robinson comes along promising to change all that.


Agency Heads Meet

In March, she and Annan summoned all of the U.N.'s agency heads to a meeting here, where they were addressed by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel and then directed by Annan to include human rights concerns in all their programs.

These “barons and baronesses of the U.N.,” as one official put it, traditionally have operated independently, often protected from administrative accountability by alliances with key member states or regional blocs. If they actually coordinate their efforts with those of Robinson, it will mark a sea change in how the organization does its business.

Moreover, lurking in the background is the implication--so far not made explicit--that the U.N. could require countries to adhere to certain human rights standards as a condition of receiving economic aid.


All this has a lot of governments on edge. Even as that meeting was going on, representatives of China, Cuba, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria and other authoritarian governments were quietly working behind the scenes to try to restrict the activities of U.N. human rights investigators and limit Robinson’s budget.

They’ve had limited success so far, but the pressures shake even the stoic Robinson at times. An associate recalls an uncharacteristic, if short-lived, moment of despair in which she confided that she feared that “this job is designed to fail.”

She was much more optimistic during a recent interview at her office here. But she conceded that “the first three months . . . were very difficult. The U.N. system is very difficult. . . . There were unreal expectations that I would somehow take on every dictator or bad government there was and by my voice alone make everything all right.”

Those expectations came mainly from Western capitals, including Washington, and from private human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that pushed hard for her selection. After an initial period of elation at Robinson’s appointment last fall, these backers have begun a more sober reassessment, prompted in part by a closer look at someone many knew before only by distant reputation.


Leading From Intellect

They have found a reserved and private woman who leads from intellect rather than instinct, a lawyer who distrusts emotion, detests the made-for-television sound bite and, in the description of one longtime acquaintance, is more comfortable addressing a room of 1,000 than in one-on-one conversation with a colleague.

As Irish president from 1990 to 1997, she transformed a largely symbolic and ceremonial post into a bully pulpit urging her country to embrace a more modern, inclusive and liberal society. She became the first government official to shake hands with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, in a move that by some accounts prepared the ground for the IRA cease-fire. Although she often courted controversy, she left office with approval ratings above 90%, prompting one commentator to declare her the most popular Irish politician of the century.

But what Robinson often calls “my inner sense of justice” rarely explodes into passionate oratory. What you’re more likely to get is detached, legalistic analysis.


“She has a high level of what I would call reserved compassion, which she tends not to express but which makes her swing into action,” said Fergus Finley, who helped run her presidential campaign and is now a writer and broadcaster in Dublin.

During a visit to Cambodia early this year, Robinson and several aides spent hours meeting with teenagers who had escaped lives as child prostitutes. One 14-year-old girl was too traumatized to speak in front of the group, and Robinson and a translator took her into a separate room and listened for 20 minutes to her story.

In the months since, the issue of child trafficking has moved near the top of the U.N.'s human rights agenda.

“She works harder at listening than anyone I’ve ever known,” said John Mills, a former journalist who has served as her press secretary since she joined the U.N.


It’s an observation echoed by others, both here and in Ireland. But many are surprised--even confounded--on first meeting Robinson by her lack of charisma and personal warmth. “Let’s just say she’s not a large presence who fills up a room when she walks into it,” noted one U.S. observer.

“You can see her excelling in the ritualized decorum of an Irish courtroom, but U.N. politics is much more vicious,” added Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York.

Robinson shrugs off such concerns and counts her self-effacing manner as an asset, saying: “If we want to protect human rights, we ought to be prepared to do a lot of things . . . and not want the credit. In a lot of instances, I hope I can make progress in human rights and it can never be traced back to me.”

But associates say that those who doubt her ability to move governments to action should recall her 1992 visit, as Irish president, to famine-stricken Somalia.


After watching “children dying in the arms of their mothers while waiting for food at the feeding stations,” as she recalled recently, Robinson flew to Nairobi, Kenya, and then New York, where her emotional description of her experience helped launch a U.N. aid operation.

Even Robinson, however, acknowledges that the outburst was out of character and that she worried her tearful appeal was “unprofessional.”

Her tendency to submerge her personality in her job is evident even in her spacious but bland office. There are no family photographs, no souvenirs of Ireland, no reminders of an eventful seven years as chief of state. The only personal item visible is a signed poem by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, called “The Republic of Conscience,” and inscribed to Robinson on her appointment to the U.N. “from all of us in Ireland working for human rights.”

An Early Insight


Born Mary Bourke on May 21, 1944, in the town of Ballina, in western Ireland, Robinson was the only girl of five children. In her youth, she sometimes accompanied her father, a physician, on house calls around the countryside, giving her an insight into how less prosperous families lived in what was then one of the poorest countries in Western Europe. Robinson’s mother also was a doctor, but her practice withered because few patients at the time would accept a female physician.

After earning a law degree at Trinity College in Dublin, Robinson spent the 1967-68 academic year in postgraduate studies at Harvard.

“That was the year American society was questioning so much: the mortality of the war in Vietnam, questioning issues of poverty and civil rights,” she said. “It was very much an opening-up year.”

Shortly after returning to Ireland, she summoned what she calls “that brash Harvard confidence” and ran for the Irish Senate, a partly elected and partly appointed body that forms the less powerful half of Parliament.


Initially, she was regarded in the chamber as something of a charming anomaly, with her miniskirts and spunky rhetoric, but her first bill as a legislator touched off national controversy. She took on both the Roman Catholic Church and a law dating nearly from the founding of the Irish Republic when she proposed overturning the national ban on the import, distribution and sale of contraceptives. Opponents responded by dropping used condoms through her office mail slot, and the bill couldn’t even muster enough support for a formal vote. But Robinson persevered, in the Senate and in the courts, until her position prevailed years later.

For many in Ireland, her upset election as president in 1990 was a defining moment in the history of a traditionally patriarchal society.

Robinson’s presidency also coincided with--and benefited from--a seismic shift in Ireland’s economic and cultural landscape. The country has emerged in this decade as one of the most powerful economies in Europe--the Emerald Tiger. Economic expansion has spawned a more sophisticated society and a decline in the influence of the church.

Robinson, who for most of her political career had been out of step with a socially conservative society, suddenly found her views in vogue.


“While she symbolized the changes in Ireland, she was also helping cause the change,” said Finton O’Toole, an Irish journalist and essayist. “She in a sense gave people permission to say what they really believed.”

By the end of her term, O’Toole added, she almost was beyond criticism. “You couldn’t get anyone to say anything bad about her,” he said. “Now she’s got to get used to people hating her again.”

Major Test in China

Robinson herself shrugs off the prospect.


“I expect and don’t dismiss criticism, but I don’t have a problem with it,” she said.

Her expansive view of human rights--she includes freedom from poverty and the right to education and health care in her mandate--could bring her into conflict with Western governments and some human rights organizations that want her to concentrate on civil liberties and political freedom.

Her first major test comes with a visit to China in September. Human rights groups have noted with interest a 1989 speech she made in the Irish Senate describing China’s Tibet policy as “suppression of a whole people, so that their independent religious, social and cultural ethos is denied and they are subjected to the humiliation of being colonized and indeed substantially planted upon to such an extent that the Tibetan people have become a minority in their own country.”

Wu Jianmin, China’s ambassador here, made it clear in an interview that Beijing views the Robinson visit as an opportunity to put to rest what he dismissed as misrepresentations of the country’s human rights record.


“I don’t think there is a universal democratic system,” he said. “We have a different form of democracy. We shouldn’t impose forms on others.”

Robinson agreed that the trip will be crucial for her reputation in the human rights community. But she added that she is in this for the long term and that too much importance should not be attached to a single event.

Nonetheless, in a November speech at Oxford University in England, Robinson acknowledged that the U.N. has a lot hanging on her success.

“Almost by definition and certainly according to its charter, the United Nations exists to promote human rights,” she said. “Somewhere along the way, many in the United Nations have lost the plot and allowed their work to answer to other imperatives. This is the root cause of much of the criticism that is leveled at the organization.


“There is an opportunity now to recapture the lost purpose of the United Nations.”

Turner is The Times’ United Nations Bureau chief.


Profile: Mary Bourke Robinson


* Born: May 21, 1944, only daughter of Aubrey Bourke and Tessa O’Donnell Bourke of Ballina, Ireland. Mother died in 1973; father lives in Ballina.

* Education: Bachelor’s and law degrees from Trinity College, Dublin, 1967; postgraduate studies, Harvard University, 1967-68.

* Career highlights: Member of the Irish Senate, 1969-89, representing graduates of Trinity College; Dublin City Council, 1979-83; professor of law at Trinity Colege, 1969-75; twice defeated in elections for the Dail, main seat of power in the Irish Parliament; practiced law before Irish courts, European Court of Human Rights and European Court of Justice; elected to a seven-year term as president of Ireland, 1990, the first woman to hold the office; resigned September 1997 to accept appointment as United Nations’ second high commissioner for human rights.

* The job: The high commissioner for human rights is appointed by the secretary-general to a four-year term and confirmed by the General Assembly. Based in Geneva, she supervises the U.N. Center for Human Rights and field offices around the world, about 300 employees and an annual budget of $20 million in regular U.N. funds and $53 million in additional, voluntary payments by governments. She also works with special investigators appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which consists of 53 elected member states who meet once a year. Current commission members include a bloc of authoritarian regimes--China, Cuba, Indonesia and others--that have tried to hamstring U.N. human rights activities, so far with only limited success.


* Family: Married in 1970 to Nicholas Robinson, a lawyer by training but a cartoonist and author by profession. He is considered her closest advisor but stays out of the spotlight. Their children are Tessa, 26, William, 25, and Aubrey, 17.

* Quote: “My responsibility as U.N. high commissioner is to adopt and to foster a rights-based approach across the whole spectrum of ‘civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights,’ to promote and protect the realization of the right to development and specifically to include women’s rights as human rights. . . . It is useful to have a timely opportunity for an open and, I hope, frank debate on all of this. That opportunity presents itself.”