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Friday, 30 November, 2001, 21:07 GMT
Meeting Mrs Robinson
Mary Robinson in China
China has allowed Mrs Robinson to visit six times
By Zeinab Badawi, who interviewed Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the BBC's Talking Point

I chatted with Mary Robinson over dinner the night before she came into the BBC studios.

The meal was a formal occasion, but she turned it into quite an Irish affair by bringing along her husband, three children and one of her brothers.

One couldn't help wondering what she could do with all that concern

As she got up to make a pre-dinner speech she confessed that her knees were knocking - a bit unlikely, I thought, for a woman known as someone prepared to knock heads together in her mission to improve human rights.

Her remit is enormous, and I warned her that we had received emails and phone calls from right across the globe covering a huge host of subjects.

But for someone who'd crossed four continents in the past couple of weeks that prospect could hardly be daunting.

The next day Mrs Robinson, who has been the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights for the last four years, pitched up at our studios in a stunning red jacket, accompanied by her affable senior policy adviser and fellow Irishman, Professor Kevin Boyle.

Afghanistan concerns

Unsurprisingly, the situation in Afghanistan dominated the first few phone calls and emails.

Mrs Robinson had already said she backed a call by Amnesty International for an inquiry into the alleged massacre of Taleban foreign fighters at the fortress prison in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Zeinab Badawi
Badawi: Met up with Robinson on the previous night
This implies that the investigation would include the examination of possible complicity by the British and American special forces who were present at the time. She said that time was of the essence and that crucial evidence may have already disappeared.

She reiterated her concern about suspected human rights abuses as a result of the conflict of Afghanistan many times. One couldn't help wondering what she could do with all that concern.

'Mobilising shame'

Was she concerned that the international coalition against terror meant Britain and the US were cosying up to dodgy allies like General Musharraf of Pakistan, whose own human rights record was not up to scratch? "Yes," said Mrs Robinson.

Was she concerned that Britain and the United States were introducing emergency anti-terrorism legislation which allowed them to lock up foreign terrorist suspects without trial or try them in military tribunals? "Yes, I am concerned," said Mrs Robinson, although she acknowledged the need to fight terrorism. You get the gist.

After nearly an hour in her company, I couldn't help feeling that Mrs Robinson felt she still had much to accomplish, but had abandoned the UN as the vehicle through which to work

The job of Human Rights Commissioner was only set up in 1993. The problem is that the position comes with few resources - a paltry $22m from the UN - and no powers of sanction.

Mrs Robinson can only rely on the ability to "mobilise shame" - to use the power of public opinion to embarrass governments into action, reminding them of the various international covenants they have signed up to that require them to act in certain ways.

Becoming unpopular

But that is what she does so well. She has built up a reputation as someone ready to stand up to any government or world leader, be it China or the United States.

When Mrs Robinson first took the job, she said, a friend told her that she would know she was doing it well if she became unpopular - so she doesn't mind pushing a few noses out of joint.

Afghan women wait for aid in Kabul
Robinson: The veil should not become a symbol of the oppression of Muslim women
But she has to get the balance the right. The Chinese Government, which is notoriously prickly about criticisms from the outside, has deemed her comments constructive enough - but only just - to allow her into the country six times.

She has done valuable work promoting women's rights in the Islamic world and is keen to seize the current media focus on women in Afghanistan as an opportunity to secure better access to education, employment and political processes for women in such countries.

Muslim women

Saudi Arabia particularly worried her, although there was no time for us to explore that particular political hot potato further.

However, Mrs Robinson also felt that it was important for these women to use their own voices, rather than allowing Westerners to define their interests for them.

While she did not like having to wear the veil on a visit to Iran, she felt that it shouldn't become a symbol of oppression of women in Islamic societies.

I finished by asking her what the worst human rights abuse was - 'extreme poverty' was her answer

After nearly an hour in her company, I couldn't help feeling that Mrs Robinson felt she still had much to accomplish, but had abandoned the UN as the vehicle through which to work. It was too cumbersome and poorly resourced, with too many vested interests preventing her from operating effectively.

Plain speaker

Her regard for UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, however, seems unquestionable. Only because of his personal intervention did she decide to stay in her post an extra year until September 2002.

A caller from Galway asked about her future plans. "Nothing firm yet," she answered, but said it would probably be something in the human rights field.

I finished by asking her what the worst human rights abuse was. "Extreme poverty," was her answer - if you couldn't escape that, few other rights mattered.

Was that stating the obvious perhaps? Yes, but then many undemocratic countries don't like the obvious being pointed out, came the reply.

We need more plain speakers like Mary Robinson in the world.

See also:

30 Nov 01 | South Asia
Calls mount for Afghan fort inquiry
12 Oct 01 | South Asia
UN urges pause in air strikes
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