Mary Robinson: Seeking justice for people and the planet

Former Irish president Mary Robinson was named the UN special envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region in March. In another capacity, she is campaigning for climate justice. Robinson tells EurActiv that peace, stability and sustainable development are not mutually exclusive.

Mary Robinson is the UN special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and heads the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice in Dublin. She was president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and the UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.

Robinson  spoke to EurActiv’s Timothy Spence in Dublin. The following is an excerpt.

You are a former president of Ireland and former UN human rights commissioner. Why the interest in climate justice?

I came to the climate change issue from a human rights perspective, seeing the impact on the poorest countries. The impact is already very significant, and that is underestimated in richer parts of the world. The justice stems from the fact that the very poorest are the hardest hit. They live in quite vulnerable climates, they have more severe drought, the rainy season doesn’t come when it is predicted, and the impact there is really very significant on food and nutrition security.

When I attended the [G8 food and nutrition] summit in London on the 8th [June], I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough reference to climate change. But actually the reference came from those who know it first hand – [Malawi President] Joyce Banda in particular spoke about the fact that she had been hoping for a bumper harvest, and then just at the wrong time, and unpredictably, a period of drought undermined it.

Climate Justice also looks to what we can do. In particular, we can support adaptation and helping to make poor communities climate-resilient. But we can also provide access to affordable and renewable energy, and that makes a huge difference. It makes a huge difference in particular to women who are affected … they have to put food on the table, they have to go further for the firewood. But, equally, if they get electricity in the home, it makes a huge difference for clean cooking.

There was the Arab Spring and now the Turkish Summer, but I don’t see people on the street saying, ‘Give me climate justice’.

Not as much as the facts on the ground warrant it.


There was huge disappointment after Copenhagen [the climate talks in 2009] and there were marches on the street in Copenhagen of 250,000 to 350,000 people marching for climate justice … Now we’re in a much worse position because we’re losing ground on staying below 2 degrees Celsius and we’ve just passed the 400 ppm [parts per million] of carbon for the first time in millions of years.

We have a much better opportunity to get a hold of this because 2015 is such an important year. We have a commitment to a climate agreement and some work is being done on that. The [recent negotiations in Bonn] on the Durban platform for climate agreement is the platform that is actually making some progress, which is good. And I hope that the [8-9 June] discussions between President Obama and the president of China, which did focus on climate, will mean that there will be more seriousness from those two countries that we need a climate agreement.

Then we have the post-2015 [development] agenda. The high-level panel report on global partnerships, I am glad to say, did link the need for a post-2015 sustainable development agenda and the need to address the climate issue. At one stage there was an attempt to keep those separate – as though you could. Now there are coming together.

So I feel that the momentum between now and 2015 hopefully will mean that there will be more emphasis on people, on the fact that the poorest are already suffering, that it’s our lifestyles and fossil-fuel-led growth that have been responsible.

How effective has the EU been in these discussions?

The EU has become a bit better in aligning development and environment. There is now the commitment of the development ministers to [an] integrated agenda, and it’s coming before the environment ministers. And in Dublin during the [Irish] presidency, there was the breakthrough – it’s ironic that it can be called a breakthrough – having the commissioners for development, environment and humanitarian [aid] in Dublin together. Wow.

There is more recognition, certainly at the Commission and the Council of Ministers of development and environment, and hopefully [by] the foreign ministers. And in fairness I think the Irish [EU] presidency has put a lot of emphasis on this…

Don’t think that I’m a sort of blind optimistic. I borrow an expression from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who I am fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with, and he says he is not optimistic, he’s a prisoner of hope. And that’s where I am on climate justice, because there is not much to be optimistic about in the narrow sense, but we have to believe that human beings are in the end intelligent, and intelligent enough to know we are moving to a real crisis point.

As a former human rights commissioner, does it concern you that aid money is provided to countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, Congo, nations with great needs but governments with murky records on human rights?

As always it’s a complicated area. I now have a mandate as the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes – Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and seven other countries that are involved.

When it became clear that Rwanda … was in fact supporting the M23 [militants in the Democratic Republic of Congo], some donors withdrew or withheld some support and that was quite a shock to the government there. It has had the effect of signalling that the world will no longer tolerate support for armed groups that cause violence and chaos.

There are always arguments about conditionalities. But actually I have seen that they have had some effect, [but] at the same time you don’t want to stall a good development programme – which Rwanda has, a remarkable development programme, in fact involving women very centrally in it.

Are you concerned that the big donors – the Europeans, US, Japan – are curtailing their aid spending?

It is a concern … I see the cutbacks particularly for women’s groups in countries because of the reduction of development assistance. And what is happening is that there are these partnerships now, between governments, private-sector foundations, NGOs, to try to fill that breach.

If you had the chance to sit down and draft the post-2015 development goals for the UN, what would be your priorities?

I read with a lot of comfort the [UN] high-level panel’s report that has just come out on global partnerships. It’s well framed, it’s not perfect, but nothing is perfect.

How would you edit it?

I think I would put more emphasis on climate change – they do, but I would actually put more. We are living in two worlds at the moment. One talks about climate change, or not as they case may be. The other endures climate change as a lived reality and that is making it far more difficult to put food on the table, to plan for the future. I move a lot between these two worlds and it’s very frustrating.

Yet some developing countries have opposed binding climate targets, saying they could harm their own growth potential.

The concern is that the emerging economies – the Chinas, the Indias, the Brazils, the South Africas – have an increasing bulge of middle class who want their right to development. There is a sense that this has to be largely or really significantly fossil-fuel led. The climate justice response to that is … we need to ensure that the technologies which have developed in renewable energy – and this includes off-grid energy in the more developed parts of the world – are transferred and made available so that these middle-class, large bulge of people can in fact enjoy a good life and the right to development.

What we haven’t been able to convince sufficiently – and I think the high-level panel report does make that linkage – is that we only have one world, and if the large numbers coming into the middle class in the emerging economies were to have a fossil-fuel-led growth, we would not stay below 2 degrees Celsius, we would not have a safe world, and it’s like the Titanic. When it sinks, the first class go down as well.

This is why I like the fact that the world is faced with such an important year – 2015 is an incredibly important year for climate justice and intergenerational justice. I increasingly talk about the fact that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will accuse us bitterly if we miss the red lines that we have to address in 2105. We need a robust and ambitious climate agreement, and we need the approach to the goals of the high-level panel report, and I think they’ve set out a very good set of potential goals for consideration.

We can’t afford to miss that deadline.

A year from now there will be European elections and a new Commission. Do you have any interest in being the next Commission president – or a commissioner?

I’m afraid my sights are wider than that. I am very much a citizen of the world at the moment, and the world I am a citizen of is a bottom-up developing world. With some reluctance, but with a sense that I could not say no, I took on the mandate as UN special envoy to the Great Lakes because I know the situation there. But I basically don’t have any ambition other than to address the issues of climate justice for the rest of my life. And if I can manage to get the Great Lakes issue into a manageable state in the next couple of years, I would be very happy to pass it on to be further managed.

No, I don’t have any ambitions at all other than to be an advocate for climate justice.