Mary Robinson speech in Belfast: 'Human Rights Vision for World as relevant today as ever'

Former Irish President Mary Robinson will say this evening (Friday 6 May) that the Arab Spring uprisings are a reminder that human rights are as relevant and necessary today as they have ever been.

The former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights will be giving the keynote address at the Amnesty International 50th anniversary conference, to be held in Belfast this weekend. The speech will be delivered to a crowd of one thousand Amnesty International activists and members of the public gathered at Queen’s University Belfast. Mary Robinson will discuss the following topics (and can be quoted):

On the “Arab Spring”
“Corrupt dictatorships, economic decline, rising unemployment and grinding poverty as well as emerging demographic factors such as relatively large percentages of highly educated but dissatisfied youth populations have all been key to the developments of recent months from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and beyond.

“The calls we hear from the streets and squares for justice, the demands that people are making for a life of dignity, remind us yet again of the importance of the broad agenda set out more than 60 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a “common standard of achievement” for all peoples. 

“That vision - which not only recognized civil and political rights – including freedom of speech and freedom from torture and other repressive acts by those in authority - but also the importance of economic, social and cultural rights – the right to decent work, to adequate health care and education among others - and their connections to questions of equitable development and to just and peaceful societies - is as relevant today as it was in the aftermath of the second World War.  Indeed, the wide protests for dignity, democracy and human rights in the Arab world reinforce that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a Western agenda, but embodies the values we need to live together in peace and justice.”

On government
“The point is that the challenges of realizing rights are not just about what governments shouldn’t be doing – not preventing freedom of association, not torturing, not blocking exercise of free speech. It is also about what they should do – providing effective institutions of justice, health systems, education, labour institutions, etc. and how difficult this can be even for the world’s richest nations, let alone for those recovering from conflict or struggling to achieve economic and social development. It is a lesson that we still need to stress and act on.

“Across the island of Ireland, indeed across the globe, people are increasingly demanding ‘healthy’ democratic participation within the state. This is not some abstract political concept; it is about ensuring public decisions are taken on the basis of transparency, accountability and participation. It applies to 'big' questions like national taxation policies as much as it does, for example, to 'narrow' issues faced in the daily lives of residents from the Seven Towers here in Belfast asserting their right to adequate housing. This type of ‘healthy’ relationship with the state is the basis for a sustainable democratic and economic fabric tomorrow. Its absence today is the promise that yesterday’s failures will be repeated tomorrow.”

On Amnesty International and its 50th anniversary

“For a half century, Amnesty International’s work to protect the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people has been a beacon of hope for individuals and communities around the world in their struggles for justice and freedom. Your mission and commitment are as vital and needed today as when Amnesty was founded in 1961.

“I know you all have a real sense of just how much Amnesty’s efforts have impacted the lives of countless individuals in countries from all regions. But perhaps you don’t fully realize as well the importance of Amnesty’s role in shaping the development of the global human rights movement itself and indeed in supporting so many other rights advocates around the world over the years, myself included. Let me say for the record how much I have benefited from Amnesty’s inspiration and contributions in my own work at home in Ireland and abroad.”

On poverty and human rights
“As we all know, millions of people living in poverty are denied access to even the most basic health services, adequate housing and food. Over a billion sisters and brothers in our one human family still have no access to clean water and sanitation. Every day 6,000 girls and boys die from diseases linked to unsafe water, inadequate health and poor hygiene. Added to these horrific realities is the growing impact of climate change in some of the world’s poorest countries, compounding socio-economic challenges and further impeding the fulfilment of human rights for the poor. These human rights crises require our urgent attention.”

On government
“The point is that the challenges of realizing rights are not just about what governments shouldn’t be doing – not preventing freedom of association, not torturing, not blocking exercise of free speech. It is also about what they should do – providing effective institutions of justice, health systems, education, labour institutions, etc. and how difficult this can be even for the world’s richest nations, let alone for those recovering from conflict or struggling to achieve economic and social development. It is a lesson that we still need to stress and act on.

“Across the island of Ireland, indeed across the globe, people are increasingly demanding ‘healthy’ democratic participation within the state. This is not some abstract political concept; it is about ensuring public decisions are taken on the basis of transparency, accountability and participation. It applies to 'big' questions like national taxation policies as much as it does, for example, to 'narrow' issues faced in the daily lives of residents from the Seven Towers here in Belfast asserting their right to adequate housing. This type of ‘healthy’ relationship with the state is the basis for a sustainable democratic and economic fabric tomorrow. Its absence today is the promise that yesterday’s failures will be repeated tomorrow.”

Background
Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate.  Born Mary Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo (1944), the daughter of two physicians, she was educated at the University of Dublin (Trinity College), King’s Inns Dublin and Harvard Law School to which she won a fellowship in 1967.

As an academic (Trinity College Law Faculty 1968-90), legislator (Member of the Irish Senate 1969-89) and barrister (Irish Bar 1967-90, Senior Counsel 1980; called to the English Bar 1973) she sought to use law as an instrument for social change, arguing landmark cases before the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court in Luxembourg as well as in the Irish courts.  A committed European, she also served on expert European Community and Irish parliamentary committees.

In 1988 Mary Robinson and her husband founded the Irish Centre for European Law at Trinity College.  Ten years later she was elected Chancellor of the University of Dublin.

The recipient of numerous honours and awards throughout the world including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, Mary Robinson is a member of the Elders, former Chair of the Council of Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights World Leaders and a member of the Club of Madrid.

Mary Robinson serves as Honorary President of Oxfam International and Chair of Board of the Institute of Human Rights and Business in addition to being a board member of several organisations including the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and the European Climate Foundation.

From 2002 - 2010 Mary Robinson was the founder and President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalisation Initiative based in New York.  She is currently President of the recently launched Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (www.mrfcj.org) based in Dublin.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary on 28 May, Amnesty International is a movement of over three million people around the world, standing up for humanity and human rights. Its purpose is to protect individuals wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied. The organisation celebrates its 50th anniversary this year on 28 May.

View latest press releases