Mary Robinson....strike two!
* This is a continuation of a blogging of the Mary Robinson lecture given as The Annual Amnesty International Lecture as part of the Festival at Queens.
From calling on the ghosts of human rights past Dr. Robinson moved on to the nightmares of the present and how the Universal Declaration resonates with them.
She spoke of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as an example of a war that is overlooked with victims who are slipping beaneath the horizon of international interest. Women are a primary group of victims here and she gave the staggering statistic that there are 27,000 cases of rape and sexual assault recorded as part of this conflict. Dr. Robinson did not step about this statistic. Too often rape statistics are wheeled out without any real discussion of what it means until the word "rape" becomes so bland to the ears that it's horror is lost. Mary Robinson reminded the audience what it really means… It means physical and mental damage. With women physically ravaged (damaged wombs and vaginas, higher rates of HIV infection) and mentally traumatised. Again in Darfur, refugee camps have not sustained the notion of refuge with women fearful of stepping beyond their boundaries for water for fear of rape.
In a hall with so many secondary school students in attendance, Mary Robinson's figures relating to child deaths from unsafe drinking water stood starkly reminding us of the great gaps between the haves and have-nots. 6,000 children die every day because of diseases related to unsafe drinking water.
The effects of climate change relating to drought and the effects described above were also related to human rights by Dr. Robinson. She spoke of having heard the voices of those whose lives and livelihoods are most challenged by the changing climate from the Inuit to those who live in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr. Robinson moved on from climate change to discuss the importance of the recognition of social, cultural and economic rights worldwide. A set of rights which has taken some time to gather relevance and which does not yet enjoy the same respect in the United States as it does in Europe. It was for this reason that Dr. Robinson said she chose to base herself in New York after her role as UN High Commissioner ended, and where she began "realising rights" with an emphasis on health as a right.
Health as a right, Dr. Robinson pointed out, tends not to carry the same currency as an issue to be acted upon as others such as torture and the death penalty.
This is probably, I imagine, because we do not make the same immediate links between lack of proper access to healthcare and death and suffering as we can do with say torture or false imprisonment. However slow we may be to make the link the link is certainly there and is connected, as Dr. Robinson pointed out, with socio-economic deprivation.
5,000,000 women die every year from pregnancy related diseases, with 300 million women living with pregnancy related illnesses. If these 99% of them live in third world countries. Dr. Robinson contrasted the massive effect one womans death in a maternity ward here has because of its rarity with the statistics elsewhere. In Afghanistan and Sierre Leone it is a rate of one woman in eight that dies through a pregnancy related complication/illness.
In these cases the infringment of rights is felt on a number of levels. Women's right to access to health is not met, more than a million children are left motherless and so are more likely to die younger, and young girls are removed from education and made to takeover the mother's role so forfeiting their own futures and educational possibilities.
Dr. Robinson said that when she asks people in impoverished countries what it is they believe human rights to be, that they answer "access to water, and freedom from violence"
This second right is one which had hung for a long time unrecognised in Northern Ireland but which now in more peaceful times offers a beacon of hope globally according to Dr. Robinson. The Northern Ireland peace process is one which is she says she asked about all over the world as it is considered such a success story. However, she added that for it to carry itself to fruition then rights must be placed at the centre of Northern Ireland's future. She emphasised in particular the need for a Bill of Rights to be established and also that there would be some form of truth commission coming from the Eames and Bradley talks. She focused on this second topic saying that political expediency must not be used as an excuse to set aside the right to know.
* This was the end of Mary Robinson's talk. The next section of the blog focuses on the question time!
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