Mary Robinson....take a bow.
After an uplifting speech peppered with anecdotes both comical and poignant Dr. Robinson was able to take a seat and was open to questions from the BBC's William Crawley
William Crawley opened the question time referring to the Millenium Goals , noting that these goals could have been covered by the money Gordon Brown had used to bail out the banks earlier that week. In response Mary Robinson agreed saying that while 900million can be found to fund wars a fraction of this can't appear to be rasied to provide security and support for the world. The missing link she said was political will, and in order to see this kind of political action there was need for 'concerted citizen action'.
In response to Crawley's specific reference to the role of the US Mary Robinson agreed that America has in recent times serious undermined the Geneva conventions. The result being that when Bush speaks on the international stage about democracy, justice and freedom his words ring hollow.
Asked about the pressures she felt as Human Rights High Commissioner to ease off on her fight for rights to be recognised Mary Robinson admitted that there was a certain amount of bullying. This lead to what she described as a "lonely" time post 9/11 when some people were unhappy with her insistence on fighting for peoples' rights. As she put it while these decisions made her unpopular she was "there to do a job, not keep a job"!
Moving on to a very topical subject Mary Robinson expressed her view that there should be some kind of truth recovery process in Northern Ireland. Because there is no shared narrative in Northern Ireland and because the victims deserve the respect of knowing the truth. There must, she insisted, be accountability.
Asked then about why it is that it is predominantly the Unionist community that that fear a Bill of Rights, Robinson replied that it needs to be made clear through discussion that a Bill of Rights is just as important for Unionists as Republicans; a process which would go hand in hand with any process of dealing with the past that involves justice and truth.
Interestingly Mary Robinson when asked about the right to abortion pointed out that while she comes from a conservative Catholic perspective on abortion she does not want her beliefs enshrined in the law. "Botched abortions" account for a third of unnecessary maternity deaths in the third world and so while abortion may go against her personal beliefs she "knows reality" and believes that there is a right to information and access that must be upheld.
Asked about rights in Ireland Mary Robinson talked about the oft-forgotten rights of the travelling community; to have their culture and their choices recognised. She also mentioned the migrant community and used the example of the Mayo Intercultural Association as a great example of what can be achieved on a community level.
Asked if Lesbian and Gay Irish people should have the right to full marriage in the heterosexual sense Mary Robinson said that we need to walk in other people's shoes to know what it is like to hide a part of oneself because of social mores and laws. While the original UDHR may not have had gay and lesbian marriage in mind the broadening of the parameters of rights means that "we are the richer for the wider expression of human rights".
Crawley returned to the topic earlier broached by Robinson of truth recovery processes asking if having a public process would be required.
Mary Robinson replied that this would be something which would be up to the Northern Ireland community to decide. All previous truth commissions have been very much ad hoc processes and there have been diverse ways of approaching the truth. She emphasised that because many of the violations during the troubles were carried out by those in uniform it is vital that this is addressed. There can be no room for anyone in the future to say "I didn't know this was happening". A truth commission means that people know what happened.
Starting from a question about the use of rape as a weapon of war Dr. Robinson moved on to the inter-related topic of the repression of women. This was a subject she stretched from the US to fundamentalist Iran to Afghanistan. She noted the recent decision by the US to remove funding from Marie Stopes clinics in South Africa because of the accusations that these clinics supported forced abortions in China. These decisions were made, according to Dr. Robinson "by men who have no perception of what they are responsible for". Having seen a woman writhing in pain after a botched abortion Mary Robinson knows exactly what these decisions are responsible for.
The final segment of the lecture was questions from the audience, and the first asked about reconciling freedom of expression when it enfringes on human rights.
Dr. Robinson, whose husband is a political cartoonist, pointed to the example of the infamous Danish cartoons of Mohammed as an example of where she believes there should be a limit to free speech. In this case it was deliberately inflammatory with an obviously inflammatory result. According to Mary Robinson there must be responsibility regarding our rights and our freedom of expression.
Returning to a close-to-home topic one member of the audience asked for Mary Robinson's views on what was being done about the accusations of state-paramilitary collusion in Northern Ireland.
Mary Robinson referring specifically to the cases of the murders of solicitors Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane said these cases must be looked in to with full cooperation from all involved. She referred to the solicitors as the "bravest of human rights defenders" and said that it was owed to their families to have the truth come out.
Asked if a Bill of rights would provide the protection to allow Northern Irish politics to move beyond community designation Mary Robinson agreed saying that a Bill of Rights is a "crowning glory" on a peace process. A Bill of Rights is also she said an inheritance for future generations and if the wider community were to get behind it, then there would definately be a bill of rights for Northern Ireland.
Finally Mary Robinson was asked about her thoughts on Gaza where, according to the audience member who asked, every human right there is being breached. In reply Mary Robinson said that she would be travelling to Palestine in November and bringing with her some women representatives from Gaza to amplify the voices being heard about basic rights of water, health etc.
And so ended this year's Annual Amnesty International Lecture. I so rarely agree with William Crawley about anything but his closing words to describe Mary Robinson before rapturous and long applause sum the woman up perfectly "she embodies what she talks about- dignity and generousity". A woman and a politician a country can be proud of.
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