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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 14:20 GMT
Mary Robinson: Human rights champion
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson
An uncompromising voice for human rights

Mary Robinson, whose successor as UN human rights commissioner has been named as Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, has had a sometimes controversial spell in office.

Mrs Robinson, a former president of Ireland, won the praise of human rights advocates.

It's important to say loudly and clearly that those who come out of combat are treated in accordance with international humanitarian laws

Mary Robinson on the Afghan conflict
But she angered governments around the world with her outspoken and uncompromising criticism of their human rights records.

In March 2002 she announced that she would not be seeking a second term.

The events of 11 September and their aftermath have done nothing to divert the direct approach for which she has become famous.

Flying in the face of the so-called coalition against terrorism, she made a vocal plea for a pause in the US bombing of Afghanistan to allow in more food aid.

She also stated bluntly that Afghans who abuse the rights of captured Taleban forces should be barred from any future administration.

One more year

The international community was taken by surprise last March when the former Irish president announced she would not be seeking a second term.

Afghans receiving aid
Robinson asked for a pause in the bombing to let aid in for Afghans
Appointed in 1997, she was only the second High Commissioner for Human Rights - the post was created in 1994 - but had turned the office into one of the most high profile departments within the UN.

She has acknowledged that her outspoken views on civil liberties have made her an "outsider" and an "awkward voice".

Mrs Robinson had visited 60 countries, ruffling feathers not only in China, Moscow and Israel, but also among Western powers by questioning the legality of the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia.

But the pressures of the opposition she encountered from UN member states, as well as limitations on funding seemed to have taken their toll.

She said she believed she could achieve more for human rights "outside of the constraints that a multilateral organisation inevitably imposes".

Two weeks later, however, she reversed her decision to go after an appeal from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Instead, she asked for a one-year extension of her then current term to September 2002.

True to form, the going since then has been anything but smooth.

Troubled waters

The UN conference against racism in September 2001 was widely viewed as a disaster after it descended into a bitter row between Israel and Middle Eastern countries.

Robinson biography
21 May 1944: Born in County Mayo, Ireland
1969: Appointed Reid Professor of Constitutional and Criminal Law - Trinity College, Dublin
1969-89: Member of the Irish Upper House of Parliament
1988: Co-founds the Irish Centre for European Law
1990: First woman to become President of Ireland
1997: Appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
March 2001: Announces decision to step down
April 2001: Reverses decision after appeal from Kofi Annan
Sept 2002: Due to leave office
Held in South Africa, the conference nearly collapsed after the US and Israeli delegations announced their withdrawal, complaining that the meeting had been taken over by Islamic extremists.

But Mrs Robinson was characteristically defiant, and stated firmly in her closing speech that breakthroughs had been made.

And then there was 11 September.

As Washington gathered friends and former foes alike into its coalition against terrorism, Mrs Robinson was one of the few figures of any international standing to warn of the impact on Afghanistan's civilians.

She jousted once again with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, cautioning China not to use the war against terrorism as a pretext to suppress ethnic minority groups.

Mr Jiang, who has courted international support for Beijing's campaigns against Muslim separatists and Tibetan supporters of the Dalai Lama, was unimpressed.

But given her career experience, such rebuffs have been a matter of course.

'Demanding position'

At 25, Mary Robinson became Ireland's youngest professor of law on her appointment to Trinity College in 1969.

That same year she became a member of the Irish Senate - a seat she occupied for two decades.

Nato bombing of Belgrade, 1999
The former Irish president questioned the legality of Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia
As a Labour candidate she fought two unsuccessful elections to enter the lower house of parliament.

She became known in Ireland as a strong supporter of women's rights - campaigning for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting divorce and abortion. Outside the country, she gained a reputation as a prominent human rights lawyer.

After her 1990 inauguration as the seventh president of Ireland, Mrs Robinson used the office to draw attention to global crises.

She became the first head of state to visit famine-stricken Somalia in 1992, and the first to go to Rwanda after the genocide.

On the 12 September 1997 she took up the top human rights post at the UN, which she has described as one of "the most demanding positions ever created by the international community".

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See also:

23 Jul 02 | Americas
09 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
12 Oct 01 | South Asia
03 Sep 01 | Africa
03 Apr 01 | Europe
01 May 00 | Europe
04 Apr 00 | Europe
01 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
27 Nov 00 | Middle East
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