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Fmr. Irish President Mary Robinson Heads Panel Faulting “War on Terror” for Eroding Human Rights

StoryFebruary 25, 2009
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We speak to former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Robinson is president of the International Commission of Jurists, which has released a report that finds the so-called war on terror has eroded human rights worldwide. Robinson also addresses the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza and takeover of the West Bank, the need for an independent investigation of Bush administration crimes, the global economic meltdown, and the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A panel of experts set up by the International Commission of Jurists has concluded that counterterrorism measures adopted after 9/11 “threaten the very core of the international human rights framework.” The panel’s report, called “Assessing Damage, Urging Action,” was released last week following a three-year study of how tactics used in the so-called “war on terror” have eroded rights and liberties the world over and created a climate of “lingering cynicism.”

The panel includes sixty senior jurists from around the world. The report studies counterterrorism practices in forty countries but concentrates on the United States, asking President Obama to “immediately and publicly renounce” the characterization of counterterrorism as a war and to investigate human rights abuses against terrorism suspects.

The report was headed up by Mary Robinson, the president of the International Commission of Jurists. She’s joining us now in our firehouse studio. She was president of Ireland between 1990 and ’97, then was appointed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a post she held ’til 2002. Previously, she was a senator in Ireland for twenty years. 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, and 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.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

It’s great to have you with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this report you’ve just released and specifically what you’re saying to the United States and President Obama.

MARY ROBINSON: There’s been a lot written on the war on terror and counterterrorism, but this was the first time that there were hearings in sixteen countries that involved more than forty, because some of them were regional hearings.

And yes, we did look very closely both at the United States and United Kingdom law. We had hearings in both London and Belfast, because we found that in countries that didn’t have good protections, they felt the laws had changed, so they expanded their bad laws and clamped down on freedom of the press, on political activism. And when we challenged that, they would say, “Oh, but look at the United States. They no longer say no torture. Look at what they’re doing with Guantanamo. Look at Abu Ghraib, etc.” So we had to hold those who, you know, speak about democracy and freedom to the standard that they need to be held to. And we were shocked at how the standards had dipped. And, of course, it wasn’t making us more secure.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama hasn’t said this very much, but he did say he wants to stop using those words, “war on terror.” Have you spoken to him?

MARY ROBINSON: We haven’t spoken to him. In fact, I go today to Washington, and we will be meeting with some officials we’ve been meeting. There’s an event tomorrow with the Brookings Institution in Washington. I hope we will have an opportunity, and I hope, in particular, that he and members of his administration read our report.

It’s not — it’s a report that’s intended to be helpful and constructive, but we really do want to bring home the damage that has been done, some of it through a great expansion of intelligence gathering in secret with no accountability and no oversight, and some of that intelligence has been obtained by torture. I was very pleased last night in his speech that President Obama was so unequivocal, as he has been from the beginning, about no torture and got a standing ovation. That’s a step in the right direction.

AMY GOODMAN: Extraordinary rendition, however, the kidnapping of people in one country, sending them to another or right here in the United States, like Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was taken from JFK and sent off to Syria —-

MARY ROBINSON: And we wouldn’t have known about that case properly if it hadn’t been for an independent inquiry in Canada. They admitted they got tainted, false information. They have apologized, and they’ve compensated. The United States still has not apologized and has not admitted wrong in that regard.

When we were in London launching the report, the newspapers were full of this case of the Ethiopian British resident who has just been returned from Guantanamo. He claims to have been tortured in Morocco with UK intelligence officers handing in the questions to him. We don’t know, because we haven’t had an inquiry yet, how much validity, but the United States will not hand over intelligence that was gathered from him. And that is a matter that has been before the British courts. So we have this secret world of unaccountability, and we say this is one of the problems when you talk about a war and you use that paradigm and when you don’t uphold the standards of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

When I served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, you know, the United States, at the beginning, in particular, was a strong ally of these standards. During the last year, which was the year after 9/11, I found that I had to critique the United States, because it was not upholding those standards and how damaging that has been. We know it’s part of the damage to the reputation of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: You were forced out as chair of the Human Rights Commission in 2002.

MARY ROBINSON: Well, I had gone for an extra year after my first term of four years, and I did indicate that I’d be prepared to serve for the further three years, the full four-year second term. And it was clear that the United States did not want me to, because I was an open critic.

But it’s important that this is, you know, seen more as “where do we go from here?” The United States has an administration now which has recognized the damage. And I think we should be looking forward and saying there are steps that need to be taken, and we need to understand that acts of terrorism are very serious criminal acts. And in our report, we repeat frequently that we know that these are real threats, and governments have a duty to protect, as the first responsibility of government. And we’re not soft at all on terrorism. We want more effective measures to bring terrorists to justice and put them away for a long time. But if you bend the rules, other countries will not respect you, and they will bend them further.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the crisis in the Middle East, about Israel and Palestine. Let me start by asking you about George Mitchell, who’s the envoy, special envoy for Northern Ireland under the Clinton administration, now named the special envoy for the Middle East, currently second trip to the region. The former Maine senator addressed reporters last month during his first trip to the Middle East.

    GEORGE MITCHELL: The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing a lasting peace and stability in the region. The decision by President Obama to dispatch me to come to this region, less than one week after his inauguration, is a clear and tangible evidence of this commitment.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the Middle East envoy George Mitchell. You were the president of Ireland. Your thoughts on him as Middle East envoy?

MARY ROBINSON: I was very pleased at the appointment. I think there’s nobody who will bring more wisdom and understanding and a capacity to listen, which is really very important. When he was making progress in Northern Ireland, I asked a former loyalist Protestant paramilitary, who had become a community leader and was helping with reconciliation, I said, “How do you -— to what do you attribute his success in Northern Ireland?” And he used a phrase that I then honored George with later. He said, “He listened us out.” In other words, he was so patient in listening to the different sides that they ran out of complaints. And then he said, “Well, now, where do we go from here?”

And there is a need, in the context of the Middle East, to have an understanding of the narrative, which is completely different on both sides. On the Palestinian side, they are the victims, etc. On the Israeli side, they feel they are the victims, in some measure. And there needs to be an ability to transcend that and set the course for addressing the deep issues that divide.

I was in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in early November, just before Gaza was completely closed off. We were looking at the role of women and strengthening their ability to be part of the voice. And I met some extraordinary Palestinian and Israeli women, and I hope that they will be able to link with George Mitchell in what he’s doing.

AMY GOODMAN: You were quoted by the BBC last year, saying, talking about Gaza, “Their whole civilization has been destroyed, I’m not exaggerating. It’s almost unbelievable that the world doesn’t care while this is happening.”

MARY ROBINSON: I really believe that. I was in Gaza as High Commissioner for Human Rights eight years before. Going back — first of all, the way in which the West Bank itself has been divided up, by the new settlements, which are, you know, very provocative and in many cases illegal; by roads that Palestinians can’t go on, but they have to find ways around; and by the wall — but when I went to Gaza, to be with people who were under siege for eighteen months, where there was a truce, which at that stage was due for possible renewal, but there had been no dividend. When we were in Northern Ireland and the IRA started to come into some kind of process, we encouraged them by having some kind of a dividend, some kind of a change in circumstances. There was none in Gaza.

I met poor farming women whose land had been bulldozed so they couldn’t farm. And they said, “We learned embroidery, but we’ve no thread. We learned to make candles, but we’ve no wax.” There was no activity. There was not enough food for families, not enough healthcare. We heard terrible stories about pregnant women dying at the border. And I saw — because I spent two hours going in and going out, I saw very sick people being treated like dirt. You know, you don’t treat people like that. It’s very dehumanizing. These young conscripts on the Israeli side do not treat the people going in and out as human beings. They treat them as potential terrible terrorists. And that’s the image. So we need to break all of that. And I think George Mitchell has the capacity to reach beyond and to start to make us aware that this is a human situation that has to be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: And to the US saying they will not talk to Hamas, Israel saying they will not talk to Hamas?

MARY ROBINSON: Well, I was recently designated, to my astonishment, one of the Elders of Mandela’s Elders. I had to recognize I’m now officially an Elder. And the Elders decided that if we went there, we would meet with Hamas. And Archbishop Tutu has done it. Jimmy Carter was there, another Elder. And so, when I was there, I did meet with the prime minister, in the context of Gaza, and two other officials.

I was very critical of the situation under Hamas rule, because they had eroded many human rights, and I brought that up. Freedom of speech, freedom of movement. Women were being pulled back from playing a full role. They were being replaced by male teachers in some circumstances. But I felt that it was important to engage, because they have a responsibility. And I do believe that, you know, there cannot be a sustainable solution. But the main thing at the moment is to try to bring about unity in the Palestinians, between the Hamas and Fatah and others. And at the moment, that divide is damaging the prospects for all of the Palestinian people.

AMY GOODMAN: A Netanyahu government in Israel?

MARY ROBINSON: Well, the choice of government is a matter for Israel. Sometimes it’s people who come from a right position who can,, you know, have the ultimate possibility of taking brave steps. I’m sure that George Mitchell —-

AMY GOODMAN: When you say a “right position,” you mean a right-wing position?

MARY ROBINSON: Right-wing position, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bush administration, President Bush himself, do you think he should be tried for war crimes?

MARY ROBINSON: I’m not going to make that kind of allegation, because it’s completely premature to speak about who might be held accountable until there’s a process of holding to account. I was very pleased that Senator Patrick Leahy has talked about the need for an independent inquiry. And he’s right. You cannot just brush this aside because there’s an economic crisis. There is a need for a people to say, “How did we get it so wrong? What were the ways in which we lost our way with our values?” And then the decision can be taken as to whether anybody will be held accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: What about President Obama saying we have to look forward?

MARY ROBINSON: I believe that one of the ways of looking forward is to have the courage to say we must inquire, because we know the damage that was done. The world, I think, is waiting for the Obama administration, when it has all its people in place, to take the necessary steps. It’s not just words. Steps have to be taken to ensure that this does not happen again and that there is some accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think most needs to be investigated?

MARY ROBINSON: I believe that it’s important to look at how damaging the war paradigm was, what former Vice President Cheney called the “new normal.” I was shocked by that, because I could see that that was so damaging.

Acts of terrorism are crimes against humanity. They are terrible crimes, and we need to reinforce the criminal justice system, work with countries that have weak systems to strengthen their systems, and make sure that there is sharing of intelligence, but that there isn’t a secret world of no accountability for passing across intelligence that’s obtained through torture, while nodding and winking, “Oh, we don’t torture, but we will use intelligence obtained under torture.” These are the things that have to be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: President Robinson, the economic crisis, how it’s hit the world, your own country, Ireland -—

MARY ROBINSON: Yes, it did.

AMY GOODMAN: — where you were former president. Last weekend, mass protest in Dublin, unions organized. Over 120,000 people came out.

MARY ROBINSON: Yes. It’s a very, very serious situation, and it’s a challenge that every country has to face, but also it’s a global issue. No country is able to evade it. There was a time when the emerging economies, like China and India, thought that they would be immune. But now we need better international understanding, from my perspective, because in fact a lot of my focus at the moment is in African countries. And I’m going there tomorrow night to South Africa. I’ll be in Liberia at a women’s conference on International Women’s Day. I’ll be in the DRC looking at the situation of women who have been raped and girls who have had their vagina destroyed, who for the rest of their lives will suffer terribly. The world doesn’t care enough already about these issues. In a time of great economic and financial crisis, these poorest countries will be hit worst.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have fifteen seconds, but on the DRC, what has to happen now?

MARY ROBINSON: There has to be more valuing of the lives of women and girls and more accountability for the terrible brutality that has been going on for years. It’s a war that has taken a huge toll. We need to pay attention to it, and I hope to help to draw that attention.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, former chair of the UN High Commission on Human Rights. This is Democracy Now!, Now she is head of the International Commission of Jurists.

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Fmr. Irish President Mary Robinson Joins Women Leaders at International Women’s Conference in Liberia

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