Former President of Ireland Talks Climate Justice and Human Rights

Mary Robinson, who served as president of the Republic of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, addressed a standing-room-only crowd at Boston College’s Corcoran Commons on Monday, and explained the ways in which her long humanitarian career has developed her view of the intersection of human rights and climate change.  

After serving as the nation’s first female president, Robinson was appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, holding that post from 1997 to 2002. She now heads the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice.

A transformative figure in Irish politics, Robinson is notable for developing the office of the Irish presidency, which, before her tenure, was a largely ceremonial, “red-carpet” position, into a high-profile “moral platform” from which she advocated for a variety of global causes.

The foremost goal of her long career—and the subject of her address on Monday—was making the preservation of human rights into a “compass” that guides all government activities, Robinson said.

Robinson began her remarks by lauding the work of Rev. Dan Finn and the the Irish Pastoral Centre of the Archdiocese of Boston, a Dorchester-based Catholic charitable organization serving Irish immigrants, with whom she visited earlier that day. She also offered a special greeting to any undocumented immigrants, Irish or otherwise, present at the event.

Robinson said that Article I of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” is the clearest distillation of the moral principles directing her every action.

Robinson related the story of Josie Airey, an Irish woman who sought legal separation from her abusive husband, but was unable to do so due to her inability to hire private legal counsel. After appealing to the European Commission of Human Rights for assistance, the woman was awarded a fund for legal aid, to which Robinson’s legal services were attached.

At the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, Robinson won the woman’s case against the government of Ireland. Today, all Irish citizens of low income are provided free legal aid in both criminal and civil cases.

Robinson said her early work as a barrister caused her to realize that “law is, and should be, an instrument of social justice,” it wasn’t until after her tenure as U.N. High Commissioner that she appreciated the nuances—and urgency—of the global effort to preserve human rights.

“Quite often [in developing countries],” Robinson said, “you would find very bad leaders—autocratic leaders—who were abusing their citizens and pilfering their country, but within the country itself you would find people working—doctors, lawyers, trade unionists—on the ground, in a civil-society way, to try to advance their country, and to try to have better human rights in their country.”

Robinson served as U.N. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa from 2013 to 2014.

Her experiences prompted Robinson to found Realizing Rights, a New York-based charitable organization dedicated to advancing the global causes of fair trade, health care access, women’s leadership, and corporate responsibility, which was focused in particular on the furthering of economic and social rights in African countries.

“There was a great emphasis in Western countries on civil and political rights—rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from torture—but there was an underestimation of the importance of access to food, safe water, healthcare, education, and shelter,” Robinson said.

Robinson, who also served as U.N. Special Envoy on Climate Change from 2014 to 2015, said the phenomenon of climate change is not only an environmental issue, but an urgent human-rights issue disproportionately impacting developing countries.

“I know that [in the United States] there is a strange phenomenon of climate denial going on—happily, it’s really not going on anywhere else in the world anymore,” Robinson said.

Remarking upon the importance of recognizing, and minimizing, one’s carbon footprint, Robinson expressed a hope that the Boston College administration will divest from all holdings in corporations using fossil fuels or whose activities harm the environment.

“It is an incredibly unjust world where those countries and communities that are most vulnerable to [the dangers posed by] climate disruption are the countries that are least responsible,” Robinson said.