The world needs a 'shared view' of human rights, says Ireland's former president

Mary Robinson, founding president of Realizing Rights, hails the 1948 U.N. declaration of human rights as an ideal that has yet to blossom.

L.A. Cicero Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson spoke as part of the Stanford Presidential and Endowed Lecture Series in the Humanities and Arts

For Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, mankind's future is rooted in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – rooted, but it has yet to flower.

Robinson spoke Monday night about her work and her aspirations for establishing global human rights in a wide-ranging talk that addressed health rights, corporate responsibility, decent work and "climate justice" to a capacity crowd at Cubberley Auditorium. Her talk, part of the Stanford Presidential and Endowed Lecture Series in the Humanities and Arts, was sponsored by the Office of the President and administered by the Stanford Humanities Center.

She was wearing a different hat than in earlier times: As the U.N. high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002, Robinson had a high-visibility public and "official" role. Prior to that, from 1990 to 1997, she had been a remarkably popular president. Now she has turned her attention to the private sector as the founding president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, forcing her to adopt "a flexible, nimble, entrepreneurial approach."

Robinson's view of worldwide progress in human rights was not sanguine.

Commitments not met

"Human rights has fallen far short of the commitments made," she said, noting that the gap has widened in recent years, with many nations now giving priority to security issues.

"We entered the 21st century with over 50 years since the declaration of human rights," she said. Yet, although "the essence of human rights is that they are universal," she noted: "We don't have a totally shared view."

We still need "to translate the [human rights] message into different cultural, political and social contexts," she said.

Robinson's agenda for the future includes strengthening national healthcare systems; giving all access to decent wages and working conditions; and gender equality, especially focusing on issues of violence, early child marriage, poor nutrition and access to family planning.

She decried "the scourge of maternal mortality" in nations where getting pregnant is "playing dice with death."

Women in peril

A "lack of respect" toward women and "botched abortions" are often proxies for across-the-board social deprivations, she said. "While these are sensitive issues, we mustn't shy away from tackling them."

They are the "structural impediments" to achieving human rights, Robinson said.

"It's not just a health problem, it's a discrimination problem, it's a lack-of-power problem," she said.

She also focused on climate change as a basic human rights concern – a subject that generally doesn't have a human face.

"Climate change has been hampered by its image as a problem for the future," she said. An iconic image of a "polar bear on an ice floe" and receding glaciers portray climate change as "something happening in the future and not now."

"The icon for climate change is a poor woman farmer," she said. "The truth is that climate change is already affecting people in Asia, Africa and small island states" by affecting the regular rhythm of seasons and the extremity of storms and natural catastrophes.

"The sea-level rise will wipe out whole nations and cultures," she said. Each of these changes causes secondary crises – for example, human migrations and refugee problems.

She called on nations to "address the damage done in an equitable way." She noted that people called for a "fair, ambitious and binding deal" during the U.N. Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen, but the December meeting nevertheless resulted in "finger-pointing rather than shared responsibility."

"The world cannot afford brinksmanship on the issue of climate change," she said. Though the price tag is likely to be daunting, the "costs of inaction are much greater."

Women in the audience dominated the question-and-answer period that followed. To one who expressed frustration with accessibility to U.S. healthcare and abortion funding, Robinson answered, "I'm certainly very much with you."


'United States is not doing well'

"The United States is not doing well on a whole range of issues," she said, and the outlook is "more polarized in the short term."

"The United States hasn't subscribed to the agenda of economic and social rights," she said. The United States and Somalia are the only nations that have refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 21 years ago. America also has refused to ratify the U.N. declaration to eliminate discrimination against women.

"There has to be a groundswell in the United States," she said.

A final questioner was more philosophical, noting that thinkers such as John Locke claimed humans are born with "natural rights," while others thought such rights are not intrinsically human, but that it is a moral imperative to act as if they were.

That returned Robinson to her favorite topic, the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"From a practical point of view, I take the U.N. declaration as the root of modern human rights," she said.

While we can hearken back to "learned, wonderful treatises that go back several centuries, we now have a document that every country in the world upholds; we have a common standard of achievement," she said.

Robinson noted that as "power is shifting to emerging economies," it is "in our interest to strongly root the U.N. declaration."

"It is a living document," she said. "It now stretches to include climate change."