ABC Radio | Creative Thinking | Mary Robinson Interview

Mary Robinson speaks on Australian Radio about the key challenges of the 21st Century

Mary Robinson is interviewed on Australian National Radio show Creative Thinking about her evolving perspective on the key challenges facing the world in the 21st Century.

Listen to the interview in full.

Mary Robinson was a guest in the ‘Creative Thinking’ series on ABC Radio. During an interview by Geraldine Doogue, she nominates the key challenges facing our global village as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, and explains how she’s shifted her thinking in the light of some of the bigger developments in our world of late.


Geraldine Doogue: I well remember how much of an impact my next guest made when she arrived in Australia back in the early ’90s and was greeted by prime minister Paul Keating. Mary Robinson was then president of Ireland if you recall, and she later went on to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and I suppose we learned more fully then of her fascination with human rights legally (she is a lawyer), emotionally, and intellectually. Though she said subsequently that very few people actually understand what you mean outside a rarefied body of true believers, when you use the term ‘human rights’, and that includes development experts and economists.

Dr Mary Robinson is our final guest on our Creative Thinking series and I’m keen to hear what she nominates as the key challenges facing us in this 21st century, and whether she’s shifted her thinking in light of some of the biggest developments in the world of late. So it was a great pleasure to welcome Mary Robinson to the program.

Mary Robinson: Good morning, thank you.

Geraldine Doogue: Would you care to nominate what you would describe as the key challenges facing this 21st century world of ours, particularly I suppose in your area of human rights?

Mary Robinson: To me there are two big global challenges. One is how to ensure that we take steps urgently to ensure that we have in fact a safe world towards the end of this century from 2050 on, and that we do it in a people-centred way. So a number of us are elaborating a concept of climate justice which I’d be happy to talk about. And the second challenge is very much, as you say, in the world that I have been focusing on over the years. I’m very concerned that we uphold fully the values of rule of law and protection of human rights in combating acts of terrorism. Acts of terrorism are a serious threat and probably will be for much of this century, but we most uphold our values and win the minds and hearts, particularly of young people.

Geraldine Doogue: So would you say that you don’t favour talk of warfare, you don’t see us, or the West, involved in some form of war, with aspects of other groups, non-state groups?

Mary Robinson: I took part in an eminent panel which over practically three years studied the way in which governments around the world are tackling terrorism and having measures of counter-terrorism, and we were very taken aback by the erosion of basic values, and one of the problems in the United States was a war paradigm, which mixed concepts, which was really very worrying indeed. Fortunately that paradigm hasn’t been adopted by many countries, and it has now I think been dropped by the Obama administration and no longer addressing in that way. It is important that we have effective means of tackling terrorism and that – it’s possible, especially for the media, to talk in terms of we talk about a war on poverty, we talk about a war on terrorism, but it is not appropriate to have legal or purportedly legal measures based on a paradigm of war, when we are not in fact at war in the full sense.

Geraldine Doogue: But I suppose the fact that we may not be at war in the full sense, doesn’t necessarily make for a safe world, that’s been one of the great sort of realisations that assymetric warfare is very tricky for the law and for real people.

Mary Robinson: That’s right, and that’s what we addressed in a very serious way, and we do take this eminent panel under the International Commission of Jurists. One of the hats that I wear is I’m president of the International Commission of Jurists; it has a very strong Australian section, I’m glad to say, and we were very firm in both recognising the threats, and the intellectual nature of it, and wanting more effective measures to counter. But that it wasvital, and that’s the big thought or message for the 21st century. We have inherited very important golden rules of rule of law, of no torture, and these are rules that have to also obtain during the 21st century, so that we can bring about a more peaceful and balanced world. And the cost of breaking those rules and norms has been enormous. It’s why it’s now so difficult to close Guantanamo B,ay which was opened without reguard for the Geneva Convention, but because there was torture of some of the serious – you know, those against whom serious allegations were made, now it is not possible to bring them to trial and clearing up that mess is an enormous problem for the Obama administration.

Geraldine Doogue: As a matter of interest, do you speak to the armed forces in various countries? Because there is some evidence that in some ways the armed forces are more attuned to and sort of scholars of these legal traditions than people on the outside, as it were.

Mary Robinson: That’s quite true, that’s absolutely true. In our report it was called Assessing Damage, Urging Action. We list in the 16 public hearings we had in different parts of the world, including in Australia, those whom we spoke to, and they included military and security personnel, and we were very struck by how important they regarded the Geneva Conventions and Rule of Law, because they were looking at not what seems to be short-term measures and of abrogating those, but rather the need to uphold those. And that was very encouraging to us.

Geraldine Doogue: If I asked you this: has there been a shift in your priorities? Because in this series we’re not looking for people to necessarily have everything neatly nailed down, because it doesn’t seem to be the world at the moment. Have you been wrestling with areas that previously didn’t trouble you, or not?

Mary Robinson: I’ve certainly had a significant shift in my priorities quite recently. When I completed my five-year term and came to New York in October 2002, I established a small organisation called Realising Rights: the ethical globalisation initiative, and we were focusing on economic, social and cultural rights in the context of globalisation which was basically an economic globalisation that wasn’t helping poor countries, it was helping some countries and even remarkably, helping China and India to pull people out of poverty, but we could see that there were real problems for the very poorest countries and for the poor sections of countries.

So we were looking at health as a human rights, decent work issues, and women’s leadership in the context of conflict, where women tended to suffer most, where rape has become a form of warfare itself. And out of that I was also tracking the Copenhagen preparations. I wear a number of hats, vice-president for the Club of Madrid, for example, a club of former presidents and prime ministers, and we were looking at issues of mitigation and adaptation in the context of greenhouse gas emissions. And I suddenly made the connection that we must have much more of a human centred approach, a people-centred approach to talking about climate change, because the poorest countries and the poorest people in those countries are already affected, as I saw from our focus on African countries. I spent quite a lot of time in different African countries. I was recently in Liberia, and then in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Rwanda, and farmers were telling me, ‘We don’t know when to sow, the climate has changed.’ There was desertification and flooding where it hadn’t been before; the rains didn’t come.

So the impact is already there, and there was an incredible injustice in the climate debate, because the 50 poorest countries are responsible for less than 1% of these greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re already having their development retarded, and making it more difficult to reach these millennium development goals. The next element is that there is, under human rights provisions, a right to development, and these poor people must be able to develop out of the terrible poverty, but if the world is to continue for all of us, this has to be a low carbon development. So part of the climate justice is to advocate for a rapid transfer of appropriate green technologies to the poorest countries and to the poorest in middle-income countries. And in a way, if we do that and provide the opportunities for low carbon and growth, which is socially acceptable and there’s local ownership, then the poorest countries will become part of the solution, they’ll begin the adaptation, the stopping the deforestation etc, which is also part of the problem.

Geraldine Doogue: So you’re saying if you…

Mary Robinson: …that’s a shift for me.

Geraldine Doogue: Yes, no I understand what you’re saying, if you devolve it, you’re saying if you devolve the problem solving down to people, your instinct is you’ll get a much broader response.

Mary Robinson: Absolutely, and we need that broad response, we need behaviour change in the developed parts of the world, right across the board, a behaviour change we haven’t yet seen properly, but we also need the low-carbon growth, the access to power that is low carbon for the poorest, so that they could actually be part of the sense of development in the 21st century which has to be low carbon all round.

Geraldine Doogue: You must have had a real chance to observe civil society around the world, too, whether it exists or whether it doesn’t. And that seems to be almost one of the key indicators as to whether countries do absorb modernity and fashion it for themselves, or whether thy revolt against it. I wonder if you agree with that?

Mary Robinson: I’ve certainly had opportunities that I treasure, to be honest, because when I served for five years as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and went to some of the worst places of conflict, I was always struck, and indeed inspired by local human rights defenders. I mean that in a broad sense. They could be teachers, they could be journalists, they could be lawyers, they could be just brave women in situations. And in my current work I’m mainly linked with civil society globally. I link a lot of women’s groups, including women in the informal sector and again I’m taken aback with the incredible capacity to organise. I support an organisation called WIEGO, which is an organisation of women globally in the informal sector.

Geraldine Doogue: How do you spell that word?

Mary Robinson: WIEGO. Ela Batt who’s one of the elders, founded the Self-employed Women’s Association in India, and I had visited SEWA, her organisation, when I was president in the mid-’90s and we’ve been friends since then, and there are over a million members and they’re tackling poverty in the slum areas of Mumbai and Delhi etc. There’s also an organisation of waste-pickers worldwide, that organisation is now helping the poorest women in Liberia to start a local waste-picking because of the litter in Monrovia in that poor country post-conflict, to make a living out of it. And interestingly, in Colombia, the waste-pickers there had a successful legal challenge, having built up the waste-picking business an enterprise tried to move in and make a monopoly of it and take it over, and they fought in court and won. And the email traffic following that, of women from South Asia, from Bangladesh, from India, from South Africa, saying, ‘Tell us about your court case, how did you do it? Let us know because we want to have a similar opportunity if necessary.’ So what I’m saying is civil society is vibrant and on the move. It’s also on the move in human rights.

Geraldine Doogue: And look, if you had one lever to pull, one lever of power to pull that would shift things, I wonder what it would be if I asked you to summarise like that?

Mary Robinson: I would say that I’d like to see the principles of climate justice inserted into the discussions in Copenhagen, so that we put much more emphasis on adaptation, so that that adaptation becomes a trunk for a technology to the poorest countries, but we change the whole paradigm of development into something much more respectfull and locally rooted, but with low carbon potential of solar, wind, etc. It’s all possible. One of the moments when my horizon shifted was when our first grandchild was born, we now have four under the age of six, and from two of our children, and they will be in their 40s in 2050. I want to ensure that they have a safe world that they share with about 9 billion people.

Geraldine Doogue: Finally, I wonder who is influencing you? Presumably you read quite widely, I wonder who you think is really worth listening to, who’s leading the way in fresh thoughts?

Mary Robinson: Well I’ve always been interested in those who write about values basically, so in my teenage years I was fascinated by Gandhi for example, and therefore fascinated to visit India for the first time, as president of Ireland. Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the group the visionaries who gave us the universal declaration of human rights, and Al Gore, thinking about climate change. But also very much Amartya Sen, he’s written a book called The Idea of Justice, which he presented to me recently in Dublin when I had the pleasure of giving him an honoury degree in Trinity College in Dublin. It’s a big tome, The Idea of Justice and he looks at principles from previously years and takes rather a pragmatic approach on the importance of bringing ideas out into the open and arguing and seeing different sides of issues. And we talked about the way in which I’m thinking about justice in the context of climate change, and he hasn’t written about that in his book, but it might be his next work, who knows? But these are the ideas that interest me very much. When I started the current work and called the small organisations, Realising Rights: The Ethical Globalisation Initiative, people said you can’t put those two words together, ‘ethical’ and ‘globalisation’, but look at the financial crisis we’ve just had, it’s because we had an economic greedy globalisation that favoured the few that led to these awful financial bubbles and property speculation etc.

Geraldine Doogue: Collateral damage.

Mary Robinson: …lost its sense of values, yes, exactly. So we do need those values and we need them very much in this 21st century because we have a population growth that’s going to be quite phenomenal, and we know how we deal with that: educating women and the girl child but it will take time.

Geraldine Doogue: Thank you very much indeed. I really appreciate your time in joining us in this Creative Thinking series.

Mary Robinson: Thank you, sounds like a very good series.

Geraldine Doogue: Well I hope you agree. Mary Robinson, our final guest, the president of a group called Realising Rights: The Ethical Globalisation Initiative, and of course she was former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Now we’re going to have that whole series available for longer than usual on podcast by the way, so there are details on our website, and I’ll start doing promos soon just to remind you that you can get those whole five people who were with us during the last five weeks. So thank you very much indeed for your feedback and we do welcome plenty more.