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Leader like Robinson hard to find


Despots should take no pleasure in the announcement that Mary Robinson will be leaving her post as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Whoever hires Robinson next should expect her to give the job the same kind of radical overhaul she gave the U.N. Human Rights Commission, turning it into a platform for the voiceless and a bullhorn pointed at tyrants of every stripe.

Robinson’s predecessor as high commissioner, Jose Alaya Lasso, dispensed diplomacy more appropriate to hosting cocktail parties than to confronting mass atrocities. Robinson transformed that invisible, do-nothing office into a bully pulpit from which not only the likes of Libya, Cuba and Iraq but Russia, Israel and the United States felt the astringent lash of her plain speech on their respective human rights abuses.

And she didn’t shrink from castigating NATO for inflicting civilian-targeted cluster bombs on Serbia. From her earliest days at the Human Rights Commission, Robinson has aggressively pushed the definition of human rights beyond the civil liberties and freedom of speech model favored by the West to encompass the right to food, basic shelter, education and health care, as well as workers’ rights and cultural rights.

Before that, as president of Ireland from 1991 to 1996, she had taken a ribbon-cutter’s sinecure and turned it into a forum that brought the excluded Irish -- women, economic exiles, sexual minorities, the poor, the disabled -- to the power center of the national discourse. She also used her high profile as a lightning rod, visiting catastrophically violent sites like Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda and describing with outraged precision the details of what she witnessed to the international press corps that followed her.

Despite the changes she brought to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Robinson leaves the position with a deep sense of frustration. She cites the “fine language” that all governments pay to human rights in place of hard cash: The commission’s budget constitutes less than 2 percent of the United Nation’s operating budget. She’s expressed distress that the majority of the office’s rapporteurs -- frontline defenders of human rights doing the United Nation’s most dangerous jobs -- aren’t even afforded the dignity of full-time employment, but are sent into the world’s most violent conflicts with only six- or even three-month contracts. Yet the General Assembly continues to increase the commission’s mandate while keeping it on the same starvation budget.

In the over three and a half years Robinson has been at the commission, the troubling presence of transnational corporate influence within the United Nations has escalated. And at the annual Human Rights Commission meeting last month -- the meeting at which Robinson announced her resignation -- the Bush White House didn’t bother to send a representative (Madeleine Albright gave a speech at last year’s meeting).

The last big task of her term as high commissioner, the worldwide conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, planned for late August, will allow Robinson to go out as she came in -- with her outsider’s “awkward voice” speaking fiercely and explicitly, this time about the globe’s bedrock injustice issue: how access to power, money, health, education, jobs and justice are still a matter of race.

In replacing Robinson, Kofi Annan will have his work cut out for him: Diplomats are a dime a dozen, and the now-activist Human Rights Commission is no place for one. Annan needs to name and support someone who, like Robinson, is a human rights crusader fearless about speaking the facts in plain language.

Margaret Spillane teaches at Yale University and writes frequently about culture and human rights. Her e-mail address is margaret.spillane@yale.edu

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001