Q&A With President, Human Rights Advocate Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson told students at Augustana on Wednesday that she was inspired to advocate for human rights long before she joined the United Nations.

“As a child, I was the only daughter in my family ... wedged in between four brothers. Of course I was interested in human rights and equality,” she said, laughing.

Before she addressed a crowd of 2,100 at the Elmen Center for the 2011 Boe Forum on Public Affairs, Robinson spoke with students and Augustana officials about her role as the first female president of Ireland and her efforts to address world hunger and poverty.

Q. As you know, Augustana has chosen "World Hunger and Poverty" as its International Theme for the 2011-12 academic year. In an interview with South Dakota Public Broadcasting earlier this week, you said you were looking forward to visiting Augustana because that theme aligns so closely with an issue that's near and dear to your heart.

In that same interview, you also spoke about the importance of holding both the private sector and states accountable for securing and supporting human rights. You said your efforts as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and your work with Climate Justice have helped set the framework and guidelines for corporations and states to follow, but you also mentioned the need for young people – tomorrow's leaders to, in a sense, serve as watchdogs for the public – to implement those guidelines and rules of accountability in order to preserve the human rights of all.

View more photos from the 2011 Boe Forum on Public Affairs.

For Augustana students, your stance most certainly hits close to home. Earlier this year, more than 80 students, faculty and alumni witnessed the revolution in Egypt firsthand while in Cairo over the January term. As you know, the Egyptian revolution was led primarily by young people, angry at a lack of freedoms and long-standing economic hardships, who took to the streets in a series of unprecedented anti-government protests. They used social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and text messaging to organize protests, stage labor strikes and rally citizens.

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Dr. Peg Preston (history); Dr. Patrick Hicks (English); and Dr. Bill Swart (sociology) have studied Ireland extensively, including its history, culture and political structure. They spoke with the Argus Leader about why Robinson is such an influential world leader and how her work changed Ireland.

In 2009 when President Obama awarded you the Medal of Freedom in recognition of your work, he called you "an advocate for the hungry and the hunted; the forgotten and ignored." How can our students use emerging technologies to advocate, drive change, eliminate borders and promote inclusion in order to make tomorrow's world even better than today's?

A. There’s a huge potential for greater participation and, in my view, participation is one of the most important dimensions of democracy. It makes the citizen a player … a hundred-thousand messages can be sent within a couple of hours. [In Egypt] you had Tahir Square where the use of social media helped people come and feel safe because of the numbers.

I think we’re seeing, embryonically, in the discussions of Occupy Wall Street, what’s happening on Dame Street in Dublin, what’s happening in London … the right kind of questions are going to lead to formal answers. The point is there’s a critique beginning that's asking 'why could we have had such a financial crisis that accentuated the inequalities, where a few people have such power and there is no longer a sense of a social contract?' The earlier citizenship that was developed in this country and in European countries and in Japan was based on a kind of social contract. Somehow, that trust has been broken. There is a real sense of wanting to find a new model, or models. And, whatever model it is, it’s going to involve much more participation and holding to account and monitoring the behavior of governments. The really good news is that this is going to happen globally. It will take time, in some cases. I’m returning to Dublin tomorrow night to attend the inauguration of the ninth president of Ireland, then I’m flying to Tunisia to take part in a meeting of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. We are deliberately holding our meeting in Tunisia to celebrate the fact that it was the first country that has moved and has had good elections and 25 percent of the parliament will be women, which is very significant.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has an index measuring governance in all 54 countries of Africa. It’s a very sophisticated index of economic performance, performance of human rights, attacking poverty, gender, health and education. The statistics are drawn from the World Bank and the United Nations, generally, but also African-generated data. There’s a very good link of academics.

What’s happening is that we’ve had about 10 years of covering most countries in this index. You can actually see the countries that are going up and the countries that are going down in their performance. This may sound obvious but, actually, we haven’t measured governance properly. I believe that in the coming years, every country will be measured in the way that the Mo Ibrahim Index is measuring African countries. Civil society is going to use these tools to say ‘why do people have so much more access to education there than we have in our country; why is the healthcare system delivering in Rwanda, but not delivering here?‘ It really is beginning to happen now, it’s a different conversation. Social media lends itself to this.

Q. Before being elected the first female President of Ireland (1990-1997), during which, by many accounts, you changed the role from what was once considered "a sort of retirement post for politicians" to one that advocated a more open and pluralist society, working to guarantee civil rights to all of its citizens regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religious background or economic makeup, you spent 20 years as a senator. Prior to that, you practiced law and served as Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College.

You also have a husband and three children.

Tonight, you'll be speaking in a state that has the highest percentage of working mothers in the nation. Among those in the audience will be female students who will look to you as an example of how to manage and balance having a career and raising a family and, working mothers who work at perfecting that balancing act every day.

What advice do you have for women who will someday, or already do, face the challenge of balancing a career and raising a family?

A. I think it’s an important question and I honestly don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. I think we all work it out.

For me, it was extraordinarily important when I was working, that I conveyed strongly to my children that they were more important than what I was doing as a senator or professor. I repeated that message to all three of them during the presidential campaign and after the election, particularly to our youngest who was just nine at the time. No matter what happens – I may be president of the country – but you are the most important as far as I’m concerned. I meant it.

The work-life balance is important and I think we need a critical mass of women to make sure that in our public and private systems and institutions there is a fair balance for women who have to oftentimes carry out the nurturing and child care.

I do think it’s equaling out a lot. Modern fathers play a different role. Even so, at the end of the day, I think there’s a greater call on the mother, especially when children are sick.

When I served on the Dublin City Council, our meetings were at 4 p.m. There was a tendency to solve every problem by creating another committee. All those committees were during the time when I wanted to be home with my children. Eventually I retired early from the City Council because it was interfering with my family life.

Q. Last spring, Monique Schmidt, a 1998 Augustana alumna, returned to campus to talk about her experiences as program director for the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali, Rwanda. She talked about the amazing hope and eternal optimism of the young women at the school, despite the horrors they had endured during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. As president, you traveled to Rwanda in 1997 and witnessed the aftermath of the country's civil war and genocidal campaign. Can you talk about what you saw? How did that visit, and your visits to famine-plagued Somalia and other distressed areas of Africa, shape your efforts to support and advance human rights? And did these visits give birth to the idea connecting climate change and human rights, which you now fight for through Climate Justice?

I made three visits to Rwanda while I was president of Ireland. The first one and the most awful was in 1994 just after the genocidal killing. I can still remember the smell of blood; can still see the images of blood-splattered rooms in churches and piles of clothing on the floors with children’s shoes. Stumps of trees outside splattered with blood from the use of machetes.

I went back in 1995 because I was going to be speaking on behalf of the 50th anniversary of the UN. I wanted to bring the reality of how poorly Rwanda was coping into the spotlight.

The third time I went in 1997, I attended a Pan-African Women’s Conference in Rwanda that was quite remarkable. They had women from throughout Africa – vice presidents, ministers, academics, community leaders – these women had a huge impact on development in Rwanda.

So, pop quiz … what country has the highest number of women in parliament in the world today? It’s not Norway. It’s not Sweden. It’s Rwanda. It’s got about 54 percent women in Parliament. That’s helped it to have a better healthcare system and a better education system than many other African countries.

I went to Somalia in October 1992. It was shocking to see women and severely malnourished children, near death. I spoke to warlords to try to stop the fighting. Mainly though, I tried to be supportive. I went back in July (2011) and, this time, everything was worse. First of all, it was October when I went in 1992, which is the end of the dry season. This time, it was mid-July. While we were there, the UN declared that famine was present in two regions of the country, and they only say that when they’re sure that a certain percentage of children have died. I was told that probably about 28,000 children had died of hunger at that point. Many more have died since.

The horn of Africa has had the eight hottest years in succession ever. Climate change is a factor; it’s not the only factor, but it’s a very serious one.

In speaking with the women there, one of the easiest ways to start a conversation is to say, ‘how many children do you have?’ Not a single woman told me less than six. Most were seven, eight or nine. They were having seven, eight or nine children in the hope that one or two might survive.