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TANG PRIZE/Mary Robinson: A trailblazer in climate justice, human rights advocacy

06/21/2024 05:40 PM
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Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson. CNA photo June 21, 2024
Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson. CNA photo June 21, 2024

Taipei, June 21 (CNA) Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, has been awarded the 2024 Tang Prize in Rule of Law, honoring her six decades as a legal scholar and practitioner as well as an advocate for human rights and climate justice.

Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and chair of The Elders, an international NGO, has spoken out against climate injustice for years, maintaining that protecting individuals and communities from the climate crisis should be an integral part of human rights promotion.

The Elders, founded by former South African President Nelson Mandela in 2007, is focused on climate change, pandemics, and nuclear crises, Robinson told CNA in a recent interview, calling them the three "existential threats" facing humanity.

Climate change, global warming, and other climate impacts have "affected the poorest countries and poorest communities...earlier and much more severely than anyone else," said Robinson, who served as United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.

"And they are not really responsible; they are the least responsible," she continued, arguing that "countries that built their economies on fossil fuels" should be held accountable.

Time to engage on climate

Despite acknowledging global efforts to develop green energy and apply science and innovation to tackle climate problems, Robinson said bluntly, "we're not moving nearly fast enough."

"Anything between 1.5 and 2 degrees is really dangerous...Nature would turn against us," she said, referring to scientists' warning of extreme weather events if the Earth warms over 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

At the same time, she said women were particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis and yet had been left out of policy discussions and deprived of funding that could help their communities become more resilient.

"In many ways, this is still a patriarchal world [where] women are not at the table," observed Robinson, who is also renowned for her earlier efforts to promote gender equality in Ireland as a barrister, senator, and later as president.

She encouraged more women to go into politics and seek leadership roles, arguing that there would be fewer problems in the world "if power were shared between men and women equally" because women tend to be more practical and focused on problem-solving and less intent on grabbing power.

Pursuing social justice

Robinson, now 80, serves as a role model for women aspiring to make a difference in the world through activism and political engagement.

Born in the small town of Ballina in May 1944, a year before the end of World War II, Robinson grew up inspired by her grandfather and started her career as a barrister in 1967.

She also earned a master's degree in law at Harvard University in the United States in 1968.

While there, she was influenced by her peers who were heavily involved in the civil rights movement against the backdrop of anti-Vietnam War sentiment in the U.S. and who chose activism over lucrative jobs on Wall Street.

"From the very beginning...I was interested in law as a kind of tool or instrument for social justice," she said. "I wasn't interested in making money...I was much more interested in what cases would make a difference."

In one of those cases, Robinson helped a woman who was the victim of persistent domestic violence obtain a judicial separation from her husband in Ireland after bringing the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

CNA photo June 21, 2024
CNA photo June 21, 2024

The Airey v Ireland case in 1979, when divorce was still illegal in Ireland, also paved the way for Ireland and other European Union member states to provide access to lawyers for the impoverished in need of legal aid, according to Robinson.

She later entered politics, and served as a senator for 20 years before making history in 1990 by becoming the first female to be elected president of Ireland.

From 1990 to 1997, she transformed the ceremonial presidential role into a strong voice for disadvantaged groups, both at home and abroad.

She was the first foreign head of state to visit Somalia during the 1992 famine and Rwanda after the genocide in 1994.

"I felt I had to work hard to prove that a president could be much more active," she said, noting that she was hell-bent on becoming "a real moral voice" at the local, national, and international levels.

In 1997, Robinson resigned as president to take up the appointment as U.N. high commissioner for human rights, marking her transition from a national leader to a global voice.

In that role, Robinson advocated for the rights of prisoners in U.S. military-controlled Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and supported the creation of the International Criminal Court.

She was also the first in her capacity to visit Tibet in September 1998, shortly after the Chinese government suppressed a peaceful demonstration in Lhasa.

Over a decade after she left the U.N., Robinson returned to the international organization to work as a special envoy on climate and other initiatives from 2014 to 2016.

Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson speaks to CNA in a recent interview in Dublin. CNA photo June 21, 2024
Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson speaks to CNA in a recent interview in Dublin. CNA photo June 21, 2024

In her role with The Elders, she traveled to the countryside of Ethiopia to promote the abolition of child marriage by collaborating with villagers there.

Robinson emphasized that while human rights are universal and should be embraced by both Western and Eastern societies, advocates must first understand the culture of a specific country and work to integrate human rights within that cultural context.

"It was very much from within that [the endeavor to end child marriage in Ethiopia] was done," she said. "It's harder to change things from the outside, but of course you can support and encourage how communities can change."

Robinson's career across legal and political realms at both the domestic and international levels spans about six decades, but she has never ceased work in academia.

She has contributed to legal education around the world since 1969 as a law professor and has written extensively on the topics of human rights and climate justice.

In Ireland, she served as the chancellor of the University of Dublin from 1998 to 2019 and has remained an adjunct professor for climate justice at her alma mater Trinity College Dublin since 2019.

"The rule of law and human rights are intimately connected," she said, noting that freedom hinges on an environment where individuals can operate safely under the protection of the rule of law.

"We absolutely need to highlight how fundamental rule of law is both internationally and nationally, if we are going to have a safe world, if we're going to have a proper future for our children and grandchildren."

(By Teng Pei-ju and Chen Yun-yu)

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