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Thursday, 29 November, 2001, 22:31 GMT
Rights Commissioner's tough challenge
Palestinians protesting during Mary Robinson's visit to the West Bank
The commissioner must address sensitive rights issues

By Greg Barrow, BBC United Nations Bureau

If ever there was a time when a United Nations Human Rights Commissioner was needed, that time is now.

With the world engaged in a new and unprecedented war against global terrorism, fundamental principles of civil liberty and basic human rights are potentially under threat.


Measures taken by democratic countries to combat terrorism go very far in undermining the importance of the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

Mary Robinson, Human Rights Commissioner
At a human rights conference in the Finnish capital, Helsinki this week, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, sounded the alarm.

"Measures taken by democratic countries to combat terrorism go very far in undermining the importance of the rule of law and the protection of human rights," she warned.

It is in the very nature of her job that Mrs Robinson has to risk ruffling the feathers of the supposed democrat defenders of human rights, at the same time as keeping a watchful eye on those at the other end of the spectrum who consistently abuse these fundamental rights.

The global struggle against terrorism, and the war in Afghanistan have brought these twin challenges neatly together, and underlined the difficulty of the job faced by Mrs Robinson.

Deflecting blame

When it comes to human rights, most governments like to believe their record is spotless, while blaming dissident groups, freedom fighters, and what they choose to call terrorists, for everything from torture to tyranny.

The reality is often far more complex. Mrs Robinson has already had to broach the sensitive subject of the violation of minority rights in China, and the alleged abuses by Russia in its conflict with armed groups in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

She only has to mention the word "Israel" in the same sentence as the phrase "human rights violations against Palestinians", and she comes in for a torrent of criticism.

Mary Robinson attending meeting in the Middle East
The job calls for strong diplomatic skills
Mrs Robinson learnt early in her career as Human Rights Commissioner that when it comes to dealing with government officials, you have to tread carefully.

Bald accusations and public denunciations do not go down well. Governments prefer the gentle art of diplomatic persuasion in closed rooms, far from the prying eyes of the international media.

They like the public role of the Human Rights Commissioner to be one in which she smiles sweetly, shaking hands before the cameras with those whose shortcomings on the human rights front have come under scrutiny.

Not surprisingly, Mrs Robinson has sometimes felt overcome by frustration. Earlier this year she appeared to be on the point of leaving her job.

"She wants to contribute to the campaign for human rights outside the constraints of the United Nations," said those who were close to Mrs Robinson.

Money problems

It was not just the pressure of having to take a softly, softly approach, when a clenched fist seemed to be required. Perhaps the greatest irritation was the difficulty of working within a UN agency that was constantly under pressure to raise the funds required for its work.

A tight budget that made it difficult to offer long-term job security to UN human rights field-workers led to low morale. The best qualified people could not always be appointed to the right jobs, at a time when Mrs Robinson was trying to raise the profile of the Commission's work.


Governments that have come under harsh criticism for their poor record in human rights have been some of the least willing to come up with the cash to keep the Commission running.

She was finding herself increasingly involved in lobbying UN member states, private benefactors, and non-governmental organisations for donations to make the work of the Human Rights Commission possible.

Governments that have come under harsh criticism for their poor record in human rights have been some of the least willing to come up with the cash to keep the Commission running.

It remains unclear why Mary Robinson changed her mind and decided to stay on as UN Human Rights Commissioner for a second four-year term.

It could have been the persuasive powers of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. He would have been in a position to promise more secure funding, and greater freedom for her within the UN system.

It may have been the reaction of her fellow countrymen and women, particularly those in the Irish media, who expressed disappointment that their former president was surrendering such an auspicious and important international post.

Whatever the reason, Mary Robinson remains UN Human Rights Commissioner, and is buckling down to the challenge of a second term.

See also:

09 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese president 'rebuffs' Robinson
12 Oct 01 | South Asia
UN urges pause in air strikes
01 May 00 | Europe
UN links globalisation to racism
04 Apr 00 | Europe
Chechen visit a mixed success
01 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Robinson critical on China rights
27 Nov 00 | Middle East
UN rights chief criticises Israel
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