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EDITIONS
Thursday, 21 November, 2002, 09:48 GMT
Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights chief
Mary Robinson was our guest in a special edition of Talking Point, presented by Zeinab Badawi.

  To watch coverage of the forum, select this link  

  • Click here to read the transcript


    Insiders say the job of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is a poisoned chalice.

    Mary Robinson, the current holder, has not shied away from criticising western powers as well.

    Last month she called for a halt in the bombing of Afghanistan to allow humanitarian aid in.

    And she questioned the legality of Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.

    Earlier this year she announced she would not seek a second term in office. She was frustrated by the lack of clout and resources at her disposal.

    She reversed her decision a few weeks later.

    Why did she stay? Was it the right decision? What has she achieved since taking up the job in 1997? What does she think of the war in Afghanistan?

    Transcript


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Hello and welcome to Talking Point. I am Zeinab Badawi and joining me today is Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, is here to take your questions by telephone or e-mail.

    Mary Robinson is of course no stranger to the political limelight. She was Ireland's first woman president. A lawyer by training, she's spoken out throughout her career against abuses of any kind, motivated, she says, by a keen sense of justice. In her current job at the UN, she's built up a reputation for herself as being ready to stand up to any government or world leader.

    Hello Commissioner. Welcome to Talking Point and thank you very much indeed for joining us.


    Mary Robinson:

    Thank you.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Now we've had lots of telephone calls and e-mails - hundreds of them and of course many have been about the current situation in Afghanistan. So let's straight away take our first caller High Commissioner. Gabriel Fleming from London, what's your point to the High Commissioner?


    Gabriel Fleming:

    Hello Mary. My question was: do you think that the American and British alliance has acted with due regard for innocent human life in the course of events in Afghanistan since September 11th?


    Mary Robinson:

    Well we have to remember that the basis for the action was an attack made in the United States. When I saw, as we all did, the terrible scenes on television, I also, with my colleagues, did some brain-storming on how, from a human rights perspective, we would look at those attacks - particularly the twin towers in New York. The deliberate commandeering of civil aircraft, full of people, with full gasoline tanks and aiming them deliberately at building with thousands of people working in them in order to kill as many as possible. I said very openly and have continued to say that that's a crime against humanity and that it's right and indeed necessary for the whole global community to bring the perpetrators to justice. But I am concerned that, if possible, that would be the focus, to bring the perpetrators of this crime against humanity to justice. I am concerned that in the way in which events have developed, the long-suffering people of Afghanistan, are paying a very high price. They are paying high price because the Taleban have protecting the al-Qaeda network. But it has led to more severe problems of food and shelter and clothing for women and children, elderly people in Afghanistan - they've been internally displaced. So it's difficult to give a simple answer, as you can see. I follow, on a daily basis, the situation and I try to highlight the human rights dimension.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Gabriel Fleming, does that answer your question Gabriel?


    Gabriel Fleming:

    It does, pretty much. I was just wondering, does Mary think that the course of action they've decided to pursue can be held directly accountable for any violations in human rights that have taken place out there?


    Mary Robinson:

    Can I answer that question sort of in principle. In principle, yes it is possible to bring before the World Court or, for example, the European Court of Justice had a case before it a few weeks ago on whether those European countries that had participated in the Nato bombing in Kosovo and Serbia were acting in conformity with the European Convention on fundamental rights and human freedom. So there are possibilities. If it was to happen, it would be by a court some time in the future.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Thank you very much Gabriel Fleming. High Commissioner, if I could put this point to you. Our caller there mentioned Britain and the United States. What's your view on this? Many politicians in Britain and America and civil rights campaigners are very concerned about the emergency powers which both governments have now introduced in the light of September 11th. Many people are concerned, for instance, within the United States, terrorists suspects can now be tried in military tribunals. Many people here in the United Kingdom are worried that foreign terrorist suspects can be detained without a proper trial. What was your view of that - gone too far?


    Mary Robinson:

    Well, first of all, it is very important to combat terrorism. It was good that the Security Council of the United Nations took a lead. You will recall that the Security Council adopted a resolution 1373, which is mandatory. Every country must take steps now to counter terrorism. But the concern that I have and that's shared by the Secretary General of the Council Europe and Gerard Stoudmann, who heads the human rights unit of OSCE. Our joint concern is that any measures taken to combat terrorism must be within very strict limits and must uphold the values of human rights and mustn't erode them. We issued a joint statement yesterday - which is a very significant step for us - and we will be monitoring, if I could put it that way, in our different regions - I am very supported by these two organisations - how countries like Britain and the United States but also other countries in Europe that have democratic traditions are implementing steps to counter terrorism. Because my fear is, what do I say to countries without a democratic tradition, who will use this as excuse to clamp down on legitimate dissent.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    So you're watching the British and American governments carefully but as yet you don't think they've overstepped the mark?


    Mary Robinson:

    I am concerned. A lot of my assessment would come from human rights organisations. So I have read carefully what, for example, in the United States, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch are saying. What Amnesty and others are saying about the situation here in Britain. That's very important from my point of view because it's hard to analyse everything and I am concerned.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Let me give you a couple of e-mails that we've had on the situation in Afghanistan. Mansour Aboulazzm, Cairo, Egypt What do you think about the massacre of foreign and Taleban captives in Gangi castle prison?

    A similar related question from Jay Gee, Toronto: Will your office conduct an investigation about what happened in the Mazar-e-Sharif prison revolt and make public its findings?
    Mary Robinson:

    I am concerned about that prison revolt. I am concerned about the reports we've had and we don't really know, in detail, what happened. But we do know that a lot of people got killed. Maybe 600 people and therefore it is I think important to have an investigation. I note that Amnesty has called for an inquiry and I would support that. It may well be that the best inquiry would be done by international human rights organisations putting together an impartial way of it. I think that might be the best solution.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    But the evidence, in a sense, is ephemeral. Do you not think that perhaps it's a bit late in the day to begin some kind of investigation? The evidence might be eroded by time.


    Mary Robinson:

    It probably will to some extent But I think it would be important to try to go back over the full sequence - who was there, what happened. There are quite disturbing reports coming out and in any case it is a standard-setting exercise. It is reminding all parties that the Geneva Conventions apply, the international humanitarian law applies in Afghanistan in a prison context now.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Dr Sammi from Islamabad in Pakistan sent us this e-mail: Animal rights are being observed as efforts are made to save, for example, the tiger in Kabul. But humans are being dragged like animals, shot and killed in front of the camera and the United Nations is nowhere to be found. What do you say to him?


    Mary Robinson:

    The United Nations is very concerned about human rights problems. I would agree that it is the experience I've had after four years that human rights violations are very, very serious and taking place every day: torture, terrible violence against children. One of the worst kinds of violations of human rights - extreme poverty - which involves the majority of the population of the world. Extreme poverty to me is the greatest denial of the exercise of human rights. You don't vote, you don't participate in any political activity, your views aren't listened to, you have no food, you have no shelter, your children are dying of preventable diseases - you don't even have the right to clean water. It's a denial of the dignity and worth of each individual which is what the universal declaration proclaims. So we have said, very openly at the international level, you have human rights. But I would agree that for millions of people world wide, that is not a reality. That makes me angry. It makes me sometimes frustrated but it also makes me very determined to work with the whole UN and others to do something about it.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Right now, Roman Balvanovic, Belgrade, Yugoslavia says: Serbs were accused of genocide for executing POWs in Srebrenica. Should those who execute surrendered Taleban soldiers, also be accused of genocide? What is the situation regarding Taleban who've surrendered?


    Mary Robinson:

    Well, first of all, regarding soldiers that have come out of combat and surrendered, that's when the Geneva Conventions apply and they must be treated properly as prisoners, they mustn't be tortured, they mustn't be ill-treated, they certainly mustn't be summarily executed.

    It is very important to recognise that in Afghanistan, over the years, there has been a climate of killing and no accountability for extra-judicial killing, as we call it. It is now important to set standards that the Geneva Conventions apply, there is the opportunity to influence the Afghan forces because the coalition is there. There are US and UK forces on the ground and that message must be clearly brought home to uphold those standards.

    I have said two things: I said that ultimately if there are contraventions of standards in relation to either prisoners who have given up their arms and come out of combat or against a civilian population in retaliation in some way, as happened in the past. First of all of forces that do that should be disqualified from participating in a future government. That's an immediate effective sanction of one kind. Then we should in fact be addressing bringing the worst perpetrators to justice.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    People are bandying around words like genocide. This person asks: Those who execute surrendered Taleban soldiers - could they actually be accused of genocide?


    Mary Robinson:

    I don't find it useful to use that approach. I think we are talking about a conflict situation in which there are Taleban fighters fighting the Northern Alliance etc. What is important in a country that's had a tradition of violence and hasn't had standards that now things get different and you have to begin by having standards of human rights and justice.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Thank you. High Commissioner we'll take another caller. Julian Tol, Amsterdam - what's your question to Mary Robinson:


    Julian Tol, Amsterdam:

    Hello, thanks for taking my question. Mary, why do you believe that your call for a pause in the bombing, which you made earlier, would have achieved much more than the regrouping of Taleban forces and therefore prolonging the conflict, maybe causing many more deaths in long run?


    Mary Robinson:

    In fact if you'll allow me to explain that I didn't call for a pause. I had listened to an interview that President Bush gave where he said that even at that late stage, he was prepared to give the Taleban another chance to hand over Osama Bin Laden and members of the al-Qaeda network. I went on a radio programme very shortly after that and said, well I would welcome the fact that I believe there's going to be a pause which I thought was the case - I think that there was a pause for the Ramadan, for the Friday. But it was in the context of my understanding that there was going to be a pause, that I said it would be very helpful to allow humanitarian aid and relief to get in.

    It is one of the really serious side-effects, if you like, the direct effects of the military strategy. It has made the situation in the short-term so much worse and so much more difficult for millions - millions of Afghan citizens who are already vulnerable. They are displaced, they are terrified, some of them have been killed, electricity has been cut off and winter has come on. None of this is easy - but what I am saying is there are rules that apply to military combat and the strategy should be confined to what is necessary and what is proportionate - the objectives of getting Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network and clearly that's necessary in order to deal with that issue of terrorism. But I don't want a civilian population to suffer at all more than is absolutely necessary - and I think they are suffering greatly and I think it is a concern.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Let's bring in Jamiah Abdul Manaf, Johor Bahru, Malaysia, who has a related question to put to you High Commissioner. Jamiah, what's your question?


    Jamiah Abdul Manaf:

    Good afternoon Mrs Robinson. As UN Human Rights chief, you have a mammoth task in Afghanistan. So what kind of plan or resources do you think you need to make you very effective in Afghanistan?


    Mary Robinson:

    Yes, I agree with you. Both my office specifically on human rights and the UN as a whole, in relation to humanitarian, to reconstruction, to helping the people of Afghanistan hope for the future and build that future. It's their country and they must have the proper say in building it. It will need a lot of resources.

    What I would say is, look at the cost of the military campaign - millions of dollars an hour, probably, in the cost of that campaign. Let's have similar resources to rebuild the country for the civilian population of Afghanistan. They've suffered too long - now they need our support. I am already working very closely with my UN colleagues under Ambassador Brahimi. He is in Bonn at the moment discussing with four different groups of Afghans how to form a broad pan-Afghan administration - an interim administration. I hope that this will really work for the people - 60 % of them are women. Women must be involved in this process. But as you said, it is daunting. It's a very big task.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Jemiah thank you. Now High Commissioner, we've just an e-mail that's come in while we've been on air. It's from Linda Wright in the United States and she asks a question that some people have raised already. Don't you think, she says, that it's rather hypocritical of the United States and the United Kingdom to be including leaders such as General Musharraf of Pakistan amongst their allies. Some of the countries allied with the West's war on terrorism have a rather suspect human rights record themselves.

    Now that's the question of the dodgy allies isn't it? What do you do about it?


    Mary Robinson:

    I think it's important and part of the overall strategy to build a coalition against terrorism and that's as important for Pakistan as any other country. What does concern me - which is a slightly aspect of the question - is the fact that countries are not going to be asked the same penetrating questions about their human rights records. I am afraid that to keep a coalition together with, as you say, some unlikely partners in that coalition, that there will be an easing up of asking the necessary questions about human rights records, about what their doing in clamping down on political dissent, how they're treating freedom of expression and journalists etc. So it is a bleak time at the moment for human rights because of all of this.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Have you made these reservations of yours known to world leaders saying, look you're allying yourselves in the war on terrorism with people who we've in the past ourselves questioned their human rights record. There was all talk in the Commonwealth about General Musharraf when he suspended elections and so on - now being welcomed with open arms, being received in Downing Street and Washington. This must really be quite bleak for you.


    Mary Robinson:

    Well I understand the need, as I said, to build a coalition but it is important also to stick to standards and that was the thrust of the important statement yesterday that I issued together with the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer and Ambassador Stoudmann of the OSCE. We were pleading with democratic countries in particular to hold to their standards of rule of law and protection of human rights and not cutting corners in taking steps to combat terrorism. Because what do I say to non-democratic countries - how do I keep those standards, if the countries that are identified with rule of law and democracy lower their standards and that's what I'm afraid maybe's going to happen.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    High Commissioner thank you. We'll leave Afghanistan there. Let's go on to some other topics. Shay Drohan in Mexico City says: Does the UNCHR have a clear mandate from the United Nations, endorsed by all member states? Would it be helpful to you to have sanction powers in order to improve the enforcement of human rights?


    Mary Robinson:

    I do have a clear mandate. My office was established at the end of 1993 by a General Assembly resolution which is the basis on which my office works. It is a huge mandate - to bring about all human rights for all and to give leadership in that. Unfortunately the resources do not match the mandate. We still get less than 2% of the regular budget of the UN and I have to look for what's called extra budgetary voluntary resources.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    So how much is that - what does that 2% amount to in terms of real money?


    Mary Robinson:

    Twenty four million US dollars a year. Last year I got about 50 million dollars from extra budgetary which made about 75 million dollars altogether. I am looking for roughly the same for 2002. It is not a huge amount of money.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Do you have to go around with your own begging bowl, as it were, for more money?


    Mary Robinson:

    We have to go an plead - I launched an annual appeal to plead. But the questioner asked about other sanctions.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    So you've got the resources problem. But would sanction powers be useful for you?


    Mary Robinson:

    In a way, we don't use enough of the existing machinery that is there - I am not a Lone Ranger as High Commissioner. There are special rapporteurs, there are the committees that monitor how states implement the commitments they made under the two main covenants and the four conventions. I hope that civil society groups around the world, in Mexico and elsewhere, will be very well informed that Mexico has ratified the following covenants and conventions. That these can be used in a dialogue with government in Mexico.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    So you just remind governments that they've signed various covenants. But wouldn't you like a big stick with to beat them if they violate human rights?


    Mary Robinson:

    I think the stick is naming and shaming. The committees in Geneva in monitoring and reporting on the way governments are operating, do bring out critical reports and they can have an impact. But also the more this is known at country level, the more civil society groups - women's groups, youth groups, human rights defenders - use these mechanisms, the better the system will work. The only clout I have is moral authority and in a way, maybe that's enough.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    So it's your ability to mobilise shame, as it were - the impact on public opinion - that's where your power resides?


    Mary Robinson:

    It's an ability yes, to have the integrity of the human rights message. Part of that integrity - and it is very important - is to know what we mean by the agenda of human rights - that it's not just civil and political rights, it also includes economic, social and cultural rights - the right to food, to education, to health.

    When I came into this office, I found that human rights was regarded as very politicised and a Western finger-pointing agenda. From the very beginning, I've been extremely clear that it's a broad, strong agenda on both sets of rights and the right to development and that's an agenda that commends itself to developing countries.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Let's take a caller. Harry Richards from Sydney, Australia. What's your question?


    Harry Richards:

    I have been watching for 20 years from Australia, the human rights situation here and overseas. In an advanced democratic country like Australia - we have our human rights problems of course - and we can do something about it by voting, although that only goes a certain way. I am especially concerned about what we could be doing about human rights overseas. There are so many extreme situations overseas. If I can ask for your feedback about some aspects of this which have been perplexing me?

    Firstly, how easily governments are put off from paying attention to human rights outside their border. Just to put this in perspective. If one of our neighbours in the community is abusing his family then we report him to the police. In Australia, we are told that we have a responsibility to what's called - notify. Citizens are supposed to feel responsible to actually call the police about it.


    Mary Robinson:

    It's actually a good question because first of all, it shows that in your thinking you want to make a difference and in my view, everyone can make some contribution to human rights - can make a difference.

    But you're right that governments have to be concerned about violations of human rights by governments elsewhere. We do have a body called the Commission on Human Rights with its 53 members which meets for six weeks every year in Geneva and which goes through the record on human rights of many countries which appoints country rapporteurs. There is a rapporteur, for example, for Afghanistan and for a significant number of other countries and those rapporteurs are independent experts who throughout the year visit the country and monitor the human rights situation and report on it.

    But I don't think human rights should be left to the UN - it's also a matter of civil society, in Australia or elsewhere. There are human rights problems also in Australia, particular in relation to refugees and asylum seekers. That's an area where you and others can make your voice known and ensure that Australia moves forward in the right path.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    We're getting e-mails and phone calls thick and fast about all sorts of topics. Let me give you one from Kate Morris in Canada. She asks you about the Durban Conference. She says: How useful do you honestly think that the Durban Conference on racism was? From my vantage point, it seems to be more a comedy of errors than anything else. Did any real good come from it?

    Now of course you had a lot of criticism about the conference which took place in September - a few days before September 11th. Did any real good come of it?


    Mary Robinson:

    The answer is yes but I also admit that it was an extremely difficult conference. That there was horrible anti-Semitism present - particularly in some of the NGO discussions. A number people came to me and said they've never been so hurt or so harassed or been so blatantly faced with an anti-Semitism.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Just take us back - some of the Arab Islamic countries wanted to equate Zionism with racism - that was the key problem - and Israel and the United States' delegations were having none of that and they either walked out or downsized their delegations.


    Mary Robinson:

    That was a difficulty to find text because we needed to address that situation of the Middle East in some way. It would be very difficult to have a world conference on the particular subject area without addressing it and that was clear.

    In the end, the text that came out of South Africa was remarkably good including on the issues of the Middle East. It broke completely new ground in relation to the past, admitted that slavery and the slave trade of the past were and always should have been, crimes against humanity. It said that there was link between colonialism and racism - the first time that this has really been said publicly.

    In other words, there was an addressing of the past and now we have a very good contemporary agenda to combat discrimination which calls on the world - and this is very interesting - to combat Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Arab, anti-Islam stigmas and harassment. It's extraordinary that we had this three days before the 11th September and now we know how much more we need it. But it's there and every country can be encouraged to implement the plan of action.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    So you feel that despite the fact that many countries, kind of hijacked the agenda for their own purposes, that the blood, sweat and tears had been worth it all because you think you did get a decent communiqué out of it in the end?


    Mary Robinson:

    Yes, it was more than that actually. I pointed to the downside which was in relation to the Middle East and the anti-Semitism but it was a gathering of an extraordinary range of people from the margins - indigenous peoples, young Roma from Europe, those of African descent from the Americas, the Kurds - voices that never get an opportunity on the international stage.

    What I am finding now in my travels around the world is that the image for a lot of people of Durban is - we were empowered. We had a chance to have our voice heard and we now want to go forward, we want to implement the agenda.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    You've answered all your critics there then High Commissioner. Let me give you this e-mail from John Barton in Manchester. He says that he saw a BBC programme about juvenile prisoners this week and one example was a 7 year-old Mongolian boy who was going to be put in prison for 8 years. What are the United Nations - what are you doing about this?

    Before you answer that High Commissioner, let's just take this question from Sonali Tare in the United States. Sonali, what's your question?


    Sonali Tare:

    Hello Mrs Robinson. I just want to know what can be done to protect civilians during times of war, especially children? What legal measures can be taken to or instituted to prevent children from getting into war - that's the problem of child soldiers?


    Mary Robinson:

    I think they are two very important questions. I'll just deal first of all with the question of juvenile detention and juvenile justice. It's a very high priority for me and I hope in 2003 that we'll have an international conference focusing on juvenile justice - not a talking-shop - focusing in a very practical way.

    Mongolia was mentioned. I actually visited the prison in the capital of Mongolia at the request of the Minister for Justice. He asked me during my stay there last year - please go and visit this prison, please look at the conditions of juvenile defendants, I can't afford to do better - can you help me? So we have to bear in mind that sometimes there are government officials who want to do something better and they just lack resources. It is the reality in many countries.

    Coming to your particular question about children and how they are impacted on by conflict. I am glad that this is a great priority of Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. He has reported to the Security Council, drawing attention. There is the special representative that he has who goes round the world focusing on children in armed conflict. Children themselves are speaking out about it and will be doing so at a special session on children which is now postponed to New York in May.

    There are two optional protocols that will come into effect very early next year. An optional protocol in January prohibiting the sale or use of children for sexual exploitation. It's seems incredible that we need an optional protocol. But children are being sold and trafficked for sex purposes all over the world. So we do need that.

    The second protocol which will come into operation in February is the optional protocol on child soldiers in which countries will volunteer not to have children in their armies under the age of 18, hopefully. I think that's very important.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Sonali, do you want to come back to Mary Robinson?


    Sonali Tare:

    No that's fine, thank you.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Another e-mail now. Asal from the United States: Unfortunately it took the tragedy of September 11 to focus attention on the abuse of women in Afghanistan. But, the situation of Iranian women is not any better. When is UN going to focus on human abuse in Iran - especially the abuse of women in that country?


    Mary Robinson:

    I absolutely agree with the first point. It is very worrying that it took the terrible events of 11th September to have proper focus on the situation of women who are 60% of the population in Afghanistan. They have suffered terribly and hopefully now they will be party and work and be listened to in how Afghanistan will move forward into a better future.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    On that question - are you quite pleased, quite sanguine about the current negotiations that are taking place now on building a future Afghanistan and the fact that women are very much being involved in making sure that they have proper political participation?


    Mary Robinson:

    I wouldn't say quite sanguine. There are four women involved in the discussions in Bonn and I know that yesterday there was an audience for women from the European Parliament and European networks to the four parties that are trying to forge a new interim administration. They're going to be putting forward lists of names. I am going to be watching closely to see how many women are going to be on those lists. So as they say - the jury is out on that.

    But getting back to the question on women in Iran - actually I don't agree. I've had two visits now to Iran and I've met extraordinary women fully involved in every aspect of life there. They're in the parliament, they're in the government, they're professors in the university. They are very active in supporting President Khatami - it is the women who are supporting progress and change. They wear the veil - well, so why not? I also, when I was in Iran because it is a matter of law, found that I had to wear a veil which I didn't like wearing. But I wouldn't do it if it was a custom but it was part of the law and out of respect as High Commissioner, I abide by the laws.

    But I would not equate the wearing of the veil with a repression of women as such. Yes, there are very big problems. For example, there are problems in relation to wives having rights against their husbands but there's a lot of work being done by UNICEF. For example, if a father, in giving his daughter in marriage - and the marriage age is very low, so she might be only 9 or 10 - makes it clear in the marriage contract that she has rights, they will be enforced by the Iran courts. So there are all kinds of ways of making progress. But I think that Iran curiously for women in that region is by no means the worst country. Saudi Arabia is much worse and nobody points to it.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    On the question of the veil, do you think that Western feminists focus too much on the veil as a symbol of oppression and that really their intervention can sometimes be less than useful and what they should really be doing is to help women in Afghanistan to use their voice but let them speak for themselves?


    Mary Robinson:

    I do. I actually saw that during the regional preparatory conference for Durban. It took place in Tehran and some women focused entirely on not wearing the veil and being brave and it caused a lot of internal pressure on the reforming elements. It sounded as if these feminists were being very brave - actually they weren't being very sensitive to what was happening on the ground in Iran. The majority of NGOs who listened, had a much better approach and forged real friendship with women and other NGOs and those friendships and networks are continuing and are making a difference.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    We'll take another caller. Derek Hughes from the United States. What's your question to Mary Robinson?


    Derek Hughes:

    Good morning High Commissioner. You hold a very difficult position with the United Nations in today's world. Do you feel that she can use the influence of your office to put pressure on the governments of Central and Southern Africa and especially wealthy South Africa, to provide drugs and treatment to people of their respective countries stricken by HIV and Aids plague that has affected this continent so adversely? Is medical care a basic human right and in such cases do these governments have an obligation to pursue the care of their citizens? I am reliably told that the infection rate among the poor in South Africa is as high as 33%.


    Mary Robinson:

    Thank you for your question, particularly because it is a very big priority of my office. Tomorrow is Aids day. Today here in London I was addressing the issue with the Parliamentary Committee of the House of Commons and a number of very good Aids agencies and services. We were all focused in part on the situation in sub-Saharan Africa. It came up in Durban at the conference. There is a need for measures at all levels.

    I would say that what I can particularly do as High Commissioner for Human Rights is point out that one of the worst problems in tackling the terrible Aids pandemic in Southern Africa is stigma and discrimination. The fact that people are afraid to come forward to be tested. The fact that if they do come forward they may not get access to medical care at a hospital.

    Yes to your question. Basic health care is a human right and there is an obligation to provide it and not discriminate. So much needs to be done on HIV/Aids and I raise it in all my discussions with governments. What African governments say to me is we do not have the resources to provide the treatment for all of our Aids suffering and HIV suffering population even with cheaper drugs. We must do more to help African governments but it must also penetrate to grassroots level where the real problems are being dealt with, very often, by civil society. I could go on at great length on this but it is a great priority and I am glad you asked the question.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Gary Martin in the United Kingdom, you have something to ask Mary Robinson about Zimbabwe?


    Gary Martin:

    Hello Mrs Robinson. I'd really just like know what the United Nations is doing today and what they plan to do about the situation in Zimbabwe?


    Mary Robinson:

    There's a lot of concern and it's been a continuing concern. There's a concern about how to address the conflict over the land issue and the development arm of the UN - UNDP - has been trying to address that in a supportive way that deals with the land issue and takes it out of the conflict of the squatting on land, of the harassment and killings that have taken place - particularly of white farmers and also of many farm workers who are black.

    I have written on a number of occasions to President Mugabe - I can't say that I've had any positive response. But I am and continue to be very concerned. It's pulling down Southern Africa. It's having a very adverse impact in South Africa.

    I am glad to see that President Mbeke is using his influence even more openly and explicitly because that is, I think, one of the ways in which we can try and move forward. The Commonwealth is also taking a very strong position and needs to. It's a very, very worrying situation. Also the freedom of the press. The repression of journalists. We get a lot of direct pleas for help into our office and I do continue to monitor the situation.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Let's go back to Gary Martin. Gary Martin you sound as though you yourself might be from Zimbabwe?


    Gary Martin:

    Yes, I am. I think I speak for a lot of Zimbabweans. When you talk about the power of the Commonwealth and what have you, I think the Commonwealth recently and particularly through Don McKinnon has shown itself to be a totally toothless organisation. You know they organised that conference in Abuja where they came across with an agreement. Jack Straw, the only thing that he got from the Zimbabwean Government that day was a handshake - he got absolutely nothing else.

    The promises were made that they were going to withdraw from the land, there were going to be no new occupations, that it was going to be covered by the rule of law. As far as Zimbabweans are concerned, since that day, absolutely nothing has happened. Nothing has been done and it has got drastically worse now.


    Mary Robinson:

    I note your points.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    It's this question of enforcement isn't it? You can condemn but how do you actually get world leaders to comply if they are violating human rights abuses such as President Mugabe in Zimbabwe?


    Mary Robinson:

    I think one of the most effective pressures is peer pressure from the region. Countries like South Africa, Kenya and others, actually trying to influence. Mugabe is a powerful figure, as we know, in those circles. He's regarded as one of the heroes of the past but I don't think he's a hero anymore to most of them. It's difficult, but from human rights perspective, I know that Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, is following this extremely closely. The UNDP are trying very hard still to work on the land issue which is central. I note the points you are making and I'll take those on board.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    We've had a lot of e-mails and phone calls wanting to raise issues with you about countries all over the world. So High Commissioner let me take you to a different continent. Dr A. Chaudri, Luton, UK: Are any steps being taken to investigate or indict the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his generals for war crimes against humanity for what they did, and are still doing, in Chechnya?


    Mary Robinson:

    I do follow the situation extremely closely in Chechnya. I was there on behalf of the Commission of Human Rights and reported on my visit. The commission adopted an important resolution requiring the Russian Federation to take the step of having an independent inquiry into the many allegations of violations against the Chechin people and I pursue that. I reported recently to the General Assembly that the Russian Federation has not provided that independent inquiry. I also said that we get a lot more information now, I am glad to say, from the Russian authorities, though there have been some individual prosecutions of a colonel here and others in uniform. But given the scale it is not enough.

    Now of course, post the 11th September, there is a tendency by the Russian authorities to say that Chechnya has a problem of terrorism and I am concerned that the United States and other countries may ease up on addressing the human rights violations in Chechnya. Yes, there have been horrible acts by Chechin fighters and I have great sympathy for the poor young conscripts. I am quite close to the mothers of soldiers group - 18 and 19 year-olds are sent down there to Chechnya and they get killed in awful numbers regularly. But it is the civilian population in Chechnya which has suffered and continues to suffer. They cannot go through checkpoints without being harassed and having to pay fines. There are people detained, there is terrible torture and these issues do need to continue to be addressed.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Are you finding it harder to get people's attention focused on such atrocities after September 11th because everybody is focused very narrowly on the current campaign and so behind everybody's back, so to speak, these atrocities are continuing?


    Mary Robinson:

    Yes, I think that's a general problem. The intense focus on Afghanistan is meaning that there isn't sufficient attention to conflict areas and areas which need attention. I'm thinking of issues like the Democratic Republic of Congo, like Macedonia, Indonesia, East Timor - all of these issues still need a great deal more focus of attention, including from the media. I have had it said to me because it was American deaths on the 11th September, the world has been skewed only towards Afghanistan. Now that's not to take from the enormous problems there, but it is true that there is less focus on very real issues, including poverty issues, elsewhere.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Dale Wen, USA asks: Are you aware of the human rights condition in China 20 years ago? Why have you criticized a society that has experienced the most dramatic improvement in human welfare in the past twenty years?

    Now this session wouldn't have been complete without a question on China. So there you are High Commissioner.


    Mary Robinson:

    In fact, I was in China a very short while ago - this month - for an important workshop of my office. It was my sixth visit as High Commissioner and my second this year because we have a very active programme of technical co-operation with China. This workshop was on human rights education with a particular focus on the curriculum in primary and secondary schools.

    I really believe it will be a incredible step forward as the Chinese authorities build into the curriculum at primary and secondary level, a human rights component using the international human rights standards. China has, last year, ratified the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights and it's working towards ratifying the covenant on civil and political rights. But every time I'm in China, I also speak openly and loudly about my concerns about human rights violations because there are terrible violations in the treatment of Falun Gong, the people of Tibet, those in prison, those who are involved in political dissent. The Chinese have learned that I can and should co-operate in a technical co-operation but I also have to explain what is the true culture of human rights which means that you must be prepared to criticise everybody.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    That's such a big topic - human rights in China - but unfortunately we've had so many e-mails and phone calls that that's all we've got time for on that one.

    But let's put the countries to one side now and move to more general questions about you and your future. Just to make you feel at home we've got a caller from Ireland. David Keane in Galway, Ireland. What's your question to the High Commissioner?


    David Keane:

    I am actually in London but I am from Galway. Mrs Robinson, in March when you stated that you would leave your post, you talked about the constraints of working inside an organisation such as the UN. You also expressed a desire to continue working in the area of human rights. Where do you see yourself going after you leave the post - in the context of what role, if any, outside the UN whilst allowing you freedom to speak and act more freely, will give you such a loud and influential voice on human rights? Aside from that would you ever consider going back into Irish politics?


    Mary Robinson:

    No to the last question. But when I decided not to seek a second term, it was because I had committed a lot to building up the office. I felt that it was a whole new gear to do the very important job of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights within the UN and giving leadership. It's tough, you travel a lot, there are a lot of problems. I was taken aback by the reaction to my statement and in particular the grassroots reaction. The system is more vulnerable, maybe, than I had thought. Then I was persuaded by Kofi Annan to stay for another year.

    The end of my first term by a complete coincidence would have been the 11th September. I would have done four years then. So that date was in my mind for a long time. I was actually very glad to have agreed to do a further year - to be there to implement the Durban agenda. Now of course things are much more serious. We have the aftermath of the 11th September. It's harder now to know about the future.

    One thing I can confirm again - I love the work in human rights. There's a great deal happening. The linkages are incredible on every issue now and we need to link more. I have thoughts and ideas about how we can build a global alliance and this isn't moonshine. I think there is a real possibility, using the information technologies, using the expertise and building on this framework that I've been describing of the covenants, the conventions, the work of the Commission on Human Rights, the work of the rapporteurs. Bringing that to country level and pinning governments to what they agreed to - they're not actually pinned to their commitments enough. It's a great honour to do this job - it's hard but it's a great honour.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    David Keane, do you want to come back to the High Commissioner giving you a hint there of what she might do in the future?


    David Keane:

    It sounds quite interesting - if it all comes together it will be great. As long as she stays in the area of human rights with her loud voice speaking out when need be - it would be great.


    Mary Robinson:

    That I can promise you.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Another e-mail now from John in New York: What do you think of George Orwell's assertion: "The humanitarian is always a hypocrite"?


    Mary Robinson:

    I think that part of working in human rights is not to be undermined by a kind of cynicism. There are those who would try to rubbish the structure of human rights - particularly economic and social rights and say it's too vague, it doesn't really mean anything. So if I've understood the question, I think that really it is necessary to prove the integrity of the human rights message which is why at the moment I have to be critical of those who are causing concern. That is why I have to be critical of the United States or the United Kingdom if it seems they are passing legislation which cannot really be fully justified or can it - are there other parts of legislation that could be fully implemented that are not being fully implemented. These are tough questions - let's put it this way - a wise friend of mine said when I took up this job - remember Mary if you become popular in that job you're probably not doing a good job.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Do you think you've made lots of enemies?


    Mary Robinson:

    Well, you have to be prepared to take it on. I think that is the opposite to what I understand Orwell to have said. You have to pay a price.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Do you think you've paid that price?


    Mary Robinson:

    I don't want to personalise it too much. I am glad to say that I work in an office with a lot of people in it. I work with a lot of human rights mechanism treaty bodies. On this stand I have two organisations who stand with me - the Council of Europe and the OSCE. I think that's important that we take a stand for human rights at a difficult time and say there are standards, please hold to those standards, you are guardians of those standards for the rest of the world and don't let the terrorists win by undermining those standards.


    Zeinab Badawi:

    Briefly to end High Commissioner, you deal with human rights of all kinds all over the world, what for you constitutes the worse violation of human rights. What is the worst human rights abuse?


    Mary Robinson:

    The worst violation is extreme poverty - the kind of poverty that I saw in New Delhi when I was there recently, in parts of Africa where I was - including during the world conference against racism - where there is no human dignity. There is just a terrible quiet suffering. There is no clean water, children are constantly ill and die of preventable diseases. There is no hope, there is no access to education, women having babies can't get safe delivery - it's terrible. For me, if we could deal with extreme poverty, we would remove a lot of the causes of conflict - it would be very preventive.

    The last thing I would say is I'm very aware that everyone can make a difference. When I'm in situations of extreme poverty it's the fight-back that impresses me most - it's what people are doing locally to make a difference and everyone, all of us, can make a difference.
    Zeinab Badawi:

    Thank you very much. That's all we have time for in this special edition of Talking Point. My thanks to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson and of course to all you for you e-mails and phone calls and I'm very sorry if we didn't have time to get round to taking your point.


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