As we mark International Women’s Day, we speak with world-renowned human rights lawyer and advocate, Mary Robinson. She is the former president of Ireland, the first woman ever to hold the office. She is also the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Robinson speaks about the international women’s conference hosted in Liberia by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president; being chosen as one of Nelson Mandela’s "Elders"; and the ongoing struggle for women’s rights from Afghanistan to Iraq to Iran. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to mark International Women’s Day, we turn now to the world-renowned human rights lawyer and advocate Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, the first woman ever to hold the office. She is also the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has been the honorary president of Oxfam International since 2002 and founded an NGO called Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative. In 2004, she received Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, in 2005 was awarded the first Outspoken Award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission for her role in helping to decriminalize homosexuality in Ireland. She is currently the president of the International Commission of Jurists.
I spoke with her last week. It was a few days before she left for her trip to Africa. She had been chosen by Nelson Mandela to be one of the circle of Elders, and I asked her about her upcoming trip.
MARY ROBINSON: I’m going to South Africa for a meeting about the principles we need to have more equity and justice in the climate debate. Climate — global warming, climate change, is not a natural phenomenon. It’s caused by the lifestyles that we have in this part of the world, and they’re impacting very severely on the vulnerable life chances in Africa. I attended a conference in Rwanda some months ago on that subject, and these principles will help us, and we’ll try and influence the debate going to Copenhagen.
And then I go to Liberia, which is a very special country at the moment, because it has elected the first woman president in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and she has decided to put the empowerment of women at the center of her government. And she’s having a big international symposium with a youth meeting the day before, which I’ll also be attending. She has the presidents coming in. Indeed, the president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, is also a co-host of this conference. And a number of current and former presidents and prime ministers, some women and also some male presidents from neighboring African countries, will come. 400 of us from the outside and 800 within Liberia itself, so it’s a big symposium.
AMY GOODMAN: Your focus on Africa now, as former president of Ireland — why Africa?
MARY ROBINSON: Well, because I’m very concerned about the fact that both poverty and conflict particularly affect women and children and their families. So, after Liberia, I’m going to the Democratic Republic of Congo, first of all, to a big conference that the Open Society is organizing in Kinshasa, and then I lead a small group to Kivu, where horrible acts of rape and violence against women and girls, even young girls, have been carried out by marauding different militias and armies that have been in that region — Congolese, Rwandan, etc. And there’s been no accountability. Yes, the UN is there in numbers, but it’s such a huge area, and they have not actually been able to assert a zero tolerance of this kind of violence. So we want to help these women get their voices out. There are a number of people who are doing it. Eve Ensler is doing great work on it, and others. And so, we need to help to ensure that far more attention is paid to tackling gender-based violence.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to be an Elder, Nelson Mandela choosing you as an Elder?
MARY ROBINSON: When I was first approached, I actually thought it was quite an arrogant idea that, you know, a few people would be Elders in the global village. But when we met with Mandela himself, Madiba, and he sat at a roundtable with us, and he said, “I want you to be humble and to listen and to reach out in particular to those who are very marginalized, who are voiceless, and,” he said, “especially young people,” and somehow, after that, there was just no questioning anymore. It was like a responsibility, a moral responsibility, on each of us. And we’re trying to do our best individually, under our chair, Archbishop Tutu — Jimmy Carter from this country, Muhammad Yunis, Gro Brundtland, Kofi Annan, of course. And we’re trying to do our best individually, but also collectively. We have a CEO now who’s based in London, Mabel van Oranje, and a small staff.
And the Elders have been to Cyprus, quietly trying to help the peace process there. You will remember that three distinguished Elders, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Graca Machel, tried to get into Zimbabwe, but their failure to get visas to go into Zimbabwe drew attention to the cholera and to the terrible suffering of people under bad government. And in a way, it brought more attention, because Mugabe, at the time, refused to let these eminent people in to see what was happening.
AMY GOODMAN: South Africa itself, what do you think of what is happening now, with the divisions in the ANC?
MARY ROBINSON: Obviously, the future of South Africa is extraordinarily important to the continent of Africa. I have very strong links there. A son of mine worked in Khayelitsha outside Cape Town over a number of years, and I learned through him how, in an area that’s very deprived, there are terrific people who want to better themselves, find ways to combat poverty. There is still this sense that the majority of population is suffering.
When I was there recently at a meeting of the Elders last July, we met with young people, and I remember one girl of eighteen, in particular, who was involved with ActionAid, and they had a big demonstration of support for our meeting. She had one meal a day. She was the eldest of six. Her mother was a domestic worker. They used to have two meals a day; now they have one. And that’s the modern South Africa.
And I think that we do need to realize that maybe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made more sense than we think. There are people going hungry in this country now. And I’m very sad when I see the queues for food parcels, but maybe they will understand why the right to food is such an essential human right — right to food and safe water and sanitation and health and education — if we can regroup with a vision for our world, if the G20 that’s going to meet in London on the 2nd of April will know that it’s not just G20 big countries, now including more of the emerging big countries, but also those countries that are coping with dire poverty and who need to see a better future for all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: President Robinson, the effects of the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan on the world?
MARY ROBINSON: Those effects are really very damaging. I spend quite a bit of time in countries of the Middle East. And over the last few years, I’ve been saddened and shocked by the virulent anti-American responses to those wars. They are seen as occupation. I think it’s very, very heartening, and it has certainly made a huge difference, that the United States has elected President Obama and that he has shown the qualities of leadership that he clearly has.
But there is a job to be done. And frankly, sending envoys of the quality of George Mitchell is a very important step. And I am very keen that Secretary of State Clinton will link, for example, with women, particularly, and also, you know, the broader issues that need to be addressed in a humbler, more listening mode, which is what the world wants to see. It’s time for the United States to recognize that damage was done, that it has to be addressed, that it can be addressed with this kind of leadership, and that steps can be taken to move forward together in a world that’s more linked and working together.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama increasing, intensifying the war in Afghanistan, even as he draws down in Iraq?
MARY ROBINSON: I’m troubled by what’s happening in Afghanistan. I agree with those who believe that it’s not a case of a surge winning a military solution. That’s not what’s going to happen. Indeed, what needs to happen is to define what will be progress that will enable a withdrawal of those troops that are in Afghanistan. And it will be multifaceted, and it will involve building regional leaders to make sure — they may not be fully democratic, but that there is peace and that women can send their children to school, including the girl child, in particular, that there is an order that can help the Afghan people to move forward. They had a terrible time during the Taliban regime. They had a terrible time before that.
They need to be able to have a country that moves forward. But a military solution on its own is not going to be viable. Already, Kabul is less secure than it was a year ago or even six months ago. People are very worried. And it does need a concerted approach. It needs the neighbors. It needs Iran and Pakistan to be involved in the way forward. So it needs new relationships between the United States and Iran as part of addressing that issue.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you see that happening?
MARY ROBINSON: I think it is possible. I think that the elections that are coming up in Iran pose a very interesting issue, if President — former President Khatami were to be elected. And that could change the dynamic overnight.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, if he weren’t? I mean, now, President Bush, of course, certainly was sounding the war drums in Iran. Do you see President Obama taking a different position there?
MARY ROBINSON: I think it’s very important that we learn from mistakes of sounding war drums, and particularly doing it as the United States —- whether the rest of the world cares, as happened, in particular, initially in the war on Iraq. Yes, the United Kingdom did join, but there was a real resistance, and there were many people within the United Kingdom who did not support the alliance that paved the way for that war. And it has caused a lot of damage.
So I think what we need to learn, and I do believe that this is the message that President Obama is sending, we need to learn to build again the multilateral approach and the regional support approach to particularly difficult problems. We saw that in relation to North Korea, the six countries working, five of them with the United States, and still continuing to work. We need a similar type of built alliance in that region, because of such a connection from the Middle East now to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and even with the Mumbai incidents, India, and the tension there. So, we need to see an approach which builds on the strengths of working with neighbors and listening and trying to have long-term solutions.
AMY GOODMAN: You were the head of the Durban conference on racism right before the September 11th attacks. At the -—
MARY ROBINSON: I was the secretary-general. The chair of the conference was, in fact, South Africa and the foreign minister of South Africa. In a way, I had that invidious thing where I was responsible, in one sense, a secretary-general of the conference, but not the political lead. The political lead came from South Africa. And thankfully, that political lead succeeded in getting an end result, which was a program of action and a declaration, which had no anti-Semitic language whatsoever, which had dealt with the issues.
But it was too late. The anti-Semitism in the street, the way in which the NGO declaration contained bad language — so I, as High Commissioner, had to reject it — these stayed in the mind. Now we have a review of what, in fact, was a good outcome. Can we step back?
AMY GOODMAN: When and where?
MARY ROBINSON: It will be in Geneva in April, and it’s a review conference about what countries should have done to improve their situation on racism. And that’s what it should be. But unfortunately, once again, because of what happened recently, particularly in Gaza, it may well be that some will want to use it to foster anti-Semitism. I hope not.
AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts on the Israeli assault on Gaza?
MARY ROBINSON: I was in Gaza in early November and saw the suffering of a people under siege. And they asked, “Why are we getting no dividend from the truce that had been in operation for five-and-a-half months?” The UN was very disturbed, because they had building materials, $150 million worth of building materials, to help to build clinics and schools and give some jobs in Gaza. They couldn’t get this material in. School books weren’t allowed to get into Gaza. It was strange.
And then, I was there on the morning of Obama’s victory speech. I watched it from a hotel in Jerusalem. And that same morning, I was told that the Israelis had broken this temporary truce, gone in, they had killed six Hamas fighters, because they were closing a tunnel that might be used to kidnap a soldier. Frankly, nobody found that credible, because there were lots of tunnels. Everybody knew that. And they were subsequently bombed, many of them. And, you know, there is a fear about getting material in, but why, on the morning that President Obama was giving his victory speech, was there an incident provoked by Israel? Everybody questioned that. The UN questioned it, journalists, people in the street. After that, things deteriorated. And I wondered about the timing of going into Gaza. Was it done during that period, when you had an outgoing administration that wasn’t going to object before you had an incoming administration that might have taken a different approach? One way or another, for the people of Gaza, it was devastating.
AMY GOODMAN: And the timing being, of course, the last Israeli soldiers leaving on the day of the inauguration, right before the inauguration of President Obama.
MARY ROBINSON: I think these are all factors that have to be taken into account.
AMY GOODMAN: And the number of people who died then, more than 1,400 Palestinians —-
MARY ROBINSON: Don’t get me wrong. When I was speaking in Gaza, I took up this issue of the missiles that were sent by Hamas to kill or injure innocent civilians. I went to Sderot, the town, met the mayor. I absolutely condemn what Hamas does. And that also should be a subject of inquiry. And unfortunately, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution seeking a fact-finding mission to only look at what Israel had done, and I don’t think that’s a human rights approach. We need an inquiry to look at the violations of international humanitarian law by -— potential violations by all sides.
AMY GOODMAN: And why do you think Hamas was sending those rockets into southern Israel?
MARY ROBINSON: I presume — I mean, it hadn’t been happening, except very incidentally, and I think not by Hamas, but by some other groups during that period of that temporary truce during the eighteen-month siege. A siege and a blockade of 1.5 million people on a small strip is a terrible thing. It’s collective punishment. And when you see it on the ground, it is awful. And so, there was that incident on the 4th of December [sic.], and then things deteriorated, and Hamas started to send out more missiles, and the Israelis then —-
AMY GOODMAN: On the 4th of November?
MARY ROBINSON: On the 4th of November, I’m sorry, yes. And then it deteriorated after that, and Hamas refused to renew the truce. I had been urging that they would renew it. But actually, you know, you at least have some understanding of the pressures, when you see, you know, the incidents that were happening.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think of the role of the US, the responsibility of the US, with the billions of dollars it gives to Israel?
MARY ROBINSON: Well, it’s giving billions of dollars now also to help to rebuild in Gaza, which I’m very pleased about. I think it’s $900 million, which will be very vital. And it is important that it gets to the wider population in Gaza.
But the United States is vital to a solution. And what is really vital is that somebody of the caliber of George Mitchell does what he did in Belfast: goes and stays, stays there. Somebody said to me, and I think it’s a very wise decision, he could base himself in Cyprus. He could be there with a sense of real focus and continuity. And then, when Secretary of State Clinton goes, she goes knowing that it’s not sporadic; it’s a full-time concentration. And then it needs the Quartet. It needs new actors who are playing more of a part in -— you know, whether it’s Turkey, whether it’s Qatar. These are countries that now have some role to play, and they should be encouraged.
AMY GOODMAN: Should the US be speaking to Hamas?
MARY ROBINSON: I personally believe so, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
MARY ROBINSON: But I know it’s a very difficult decision.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
MARY ROBINSON: Because I don’t believe that there will be a solution without that. There were many times when the United Kingdom government said, “We will not speak to the IRA,” and they were speaking to them. So there may be backdoor channels. I hope there are.
AMY GOODMAN: President Mary Robinson, I want to thank you for being with us.
MARY ROBINSON: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Mary Robinson is the former president of Ireland. She is the first woman ever to hold the office, also the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has been the honorary president of Oxfam International since 2002. She is now the head of the International Commission of Jurists.
Tomorrow on Democracy Now!, as we continue on International Women’s Day and the response around the world, we will go to Kandahar, and we’ll speak with one of the leading women’s rights advocates. Hundreds of women donned blue scarves yesterday in Kandahar, Afghanistan. And I ask her about the surge and the US plans for Afghanistan. That’s tomorrow on Democracy Now!