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Q&A: Righting Human Wrongs

Interview with Mary Robinson, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

GLASGOW, Jun 22 2008 (IPS) - Mary Robinson spoke to Nastasya Tay of TerraViva/IPS about human rights today and the new campaign Every Human Has Rights, on the sidelines of the eighth CIVICUS World Assembly (Jun. 18-21).

Mary Robinson marching -- 'the world upside down'. Credit: Per Herbertsson

Mary Robinson marching -- 'the world upside down'. Credit: Per Herbertsson

One of the world’s most successful politicians, Mary Robinson – the first female President of Ireland – describes the campaign as a “synergy of energy”, a way for civil society to act together to effect genuine change under one banner. Human rights issues are an agenda for all of those who are marginalised and imprisoned, she says, but it is also an agenda of responsibility for every individual.

IPS: Sixty years on, how relevant is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today? How far have we come, and how far do we have to go?

Mary Robinson: There is a lot more progress to be made. But the Universal Declaration is very relevant, because it is truly universal and is not a “Western document”, if you read it carefully. And sixty years on, the world is in a somewhat similar place to 1948. After two World Wars, after a Holocaust, after the dropping of bombs on Japan, the opening of a Cold War, people were fearful then. People are also fearful now and we are using the wrong approach to make them feel secure. We are using 42-day detention, Guantanamo Bay, torture, and not observing the Geneva Conventions. We need to have people say, “These human rights belong to us”. We want governments, or major corporations, or anyone with power, to respect them. We know of our entitlement and we are stronger because those rights are there for us – the rights of the poor, rights of the marginalised, rights of women, rights of children.

IPS: You say we are in a similar place to where we were in 1948. How will new challenges, such as climate change and the food crisis affect conceptions of human rights?

MR: Next month, the campaigns of the Elders on Every Human Has Rights will focus on freedom from hunger. But we will also have a completely different debate on the right to food. The food crisis, the bio fuel issue, the role of those who are buying futures in food – it is a very complex debate. Food prices that deprive children of enough to eat become a big justice and rights issue.

Climate change itself is an increasingly important justice issue, and approaches to climate change are dependent on how you define it. If you approach it as an environmentally technical issue, you will build sea walls and develop seeds that don’t need water. On the other hand, if you view it as affecting people now, of having an unjust effect on some people because of the activity of other people in other parts of the world – in Europe and the United States and the parts of Asia that are rapidly developing it is impacting upon the poorest villages, destroying island habitats – then it’s a big issue of justice, which is relevant to how we approach adaptation. I believe that we need adaptation to help poor communities to cope, to provide insurance for them and their livelihoods.

IPS: And do you think we’re doing enough to tackle those kinds of challenges? How can we do more?

MR: I think we need to do a lot more. I’m glad that now there is a discussion about it – in fact, next week, I’ll be discussing the humanitarian dimensions of climate change in the Global Humanitarian Forum with Kofi Annan in Geneva. We may be looking at between 100 and 200 million climate refugees in 40 years time, and we have to be really aware of the reality of the situation. On a deeper level, we need to change how people think about human rights. We need to broaden that thinking, so that everybody who feels marginalised, excluded or fearful feels that they have human rights on their side. We haven’t quite gotten there yet. The Every Human Has Rights campaign is a people-power way of re-centring. I will be going to the World Social Forum in the Amazon in January, and I want everyone there to understand that they are all part of a campaign to re-centre human rights as the banner under which we tackle all the inequalities that we deal with.

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