Making ‘global’ and ‘ethical’ rhyme: an interview with Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson
9 December 2003

openDemocracy: You were a lawyer in Dublin and became president of Ireland, recording at one point an over 90% popularity rating. You went on to become the second United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) and gave that role a world profile. Since completing your term as High Commissioner you have been developing a new project – the Ethical Globalisation Initiative (EGI). In a word, how would you describe what you do?

Read Anthony Barnett's editor's note on how Mary Robinson's views relate to an emerging world politics

Mary Robinson: I guess you’d call me an activist.

openDemocracy: Your aims?

Mary Robinson: There are many kinds of activists working to make the world a better place. At EGI we want to take human rights out of their box. We want to show the relevance of the universal principles of human rights to the basic needs of health, security, education and equality.

I’m struck by how very few people outside a rarefied world of true believers understand what you mean when you say human rights – that includes development experts and economists who are very keen to implement the UN Millennium Development Goals. They’ve told me quite frankly, that they don’t know exactly what a human rights approach is.

I see our job at EGI as making the principles of human rights clear and accessible to people around the world. When I am asked, “What, in your view, is the worst human rights problem in the world today?” I reply: “Absolute poverty.” This is not the answer most journalists expect. It is neither sexy nor legalistic. But it is true.

We are working for what I call “values-led globalisation”. The international human rights framework is a vital component and engine for promoting global values. Governments have signed up to this international legal framework and we should hold them accountable, in all circumstances from environmental or labour standards, to trade talks, arms control and security issues as well as other international legal codes.

openDemocracy: “The international human rights framework” means what?

Mary Robinson: I’m talking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the six core human rights instruments: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention Against Torture; the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Every country in the world has ratified at least one of these. Many have ratified more than three. Some have ratified all six. We see them as important tools for holding governments to account and we aim to be rigorous in our analysis of how this can be done.

But our aim is also to try and show young idealistic people who are frequently concerned with the environment, or poverty and inequality – to activists, if you will: “Look, you are interested in trying to make sure that governments keep a clean environment, have regard for the lifestyles of indigenous peoples, and work for fair trade rules. Well, it’s exactly the same for human rights – from non-discrimination to the basic rights to food, safe water, education and health care. We are talking rights not needs. There are standards that governments have signed up to – but nobody is holding them to account.”

Let me give you an example that stays with me from when I was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In April 1999 the civil society groups in Brazil were fed up trying to get the government of Brazil to file its report under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. So they compiled an alternative report on Brazil. They were a broad coalition of NGOs, churches, trade unions, black Brazilians, the landless, those working in child rights, and they came together and sent a small group to Geneva with their alternative report.

I met them as High Commissioner. We explained they could not have a formal hearing before the UN Committee which monitors implementation of the Covenant because only a government is entitled to that, but we commended them. As it happened, in May 1999 I was going to Brazil. I put the alternative report under my arm. When I got off the plane I met journalists and said, “Here is the alternative report, now where’s the government’s?”

The government was very embarrassed. They then told me they would bring out a report very quickly. But I said: “No, no, I don’t want that. I want to see the government working with the civil society groups to bring out a report that reflects reality.” And that is what happened. The result was more links between the civil society participants and the government representatives.

Shortly after, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro became minister of state for human rights. When I went back to Brazil two years later government and civil society groups were reporting on similar lines. The process had brought them closer together, not in comfortable dialogue but in real dialogue. So it’s a process that reinforces democracy.

openDemocracy: And what difference does that make in Brazil?

Mary Robinson: The Brazilian government, at federal level and with as much influence as possible at the regional levels, now is committed to progressively implement the right to health, to education, to shelter, in better ways. It wasn’t in fact making the changes that were necessary. The international framework helped Brazilians wake up their government to its responsibilities.

Human rights and national sovereignty

openDemocracy: If you are trying to enforce the principles of human rights in a global way, why are you emphasising the role of national governments?

Mary Robinson: I believe that the nation-state level is very important. The whole human rights structure is based on the accountability of governments. It remains the task of governments to implement the fundamental human rights standards which should influence all aspects of globalisation, including even trade talks, and to be answerable for this in a democratic way. The structure is international, but the accountability is national and I would like to see that accountability being more penetrating at regional and local level, especially in federal systems.

In terms of my own experience I’m coming from the principles the European Union has been developing. I think that we have refined greatly our notions of sovereignty in the EU. Its members consider themselves to be sovereign governments, but they have ceded a part of their sovereignty to the Union level, and their sovereignty is now penetrated by EU law. I used to take cases relying on EU law which found that Irish law was no longer valid because it was in contradiction to EU law.

openDemocracy: Wouldn’t you say that Ireland’s sovereignty has been undermined by that?

Mary Robinson: No, because it willingly shares its sovereignty and it exercises more power in an EU context as a member-state. And also as a citizen of Ireland I have more sovereignty over our government. Because citizens now have more ways of holding the Irish government to account, not just under Irish constitutional law, but under the European system, at Strasbourg and Brussels. This, I believe, is the benefit for individual citizens.

openDemocracy: The issue of whether globalisation undermines the nation-state and whether this should be welcomed or not is much debated, not least in openDemocracy.net. In an important interview with us, Maria Cattaui, who heads the International Chamber of Commerce, made the unexpected argument that for people to reap the benefits of globalisation countries need a big and effective government sector and cited examples. Are you saying something similar?

Mary Robinson: Yes, nations have limited their sovereignty in ratifying the Covenants and in agreeing to report on how they are doing with respect to them. We’re saying that this process of accountability should not only be upwards, to UN committees with few or no sanctions, it should also be downwards to civil society and a public opinion that is educated to demand those rights.

It is essential, therefore, to the human rights framework, that governments have the primary responsibility. We want this to be recognised and expanded. So, for example, when globalisation means that many of the services that individual governments used to have direct power over are privatised, in education and health, even prison services, nonetheless national sovereignty still needs to be exercised.

In human rights theory it is very important that governments still have the primary responsibility for the standards and provision of such services even if they no longer deliver them. They must insist that the private sector delivers without discrimination. So governments still have responsibility, including the need to influence business. Indeed, we want the human rights framework to enhance and legitimise government influence.

Business comes in here as a major player but again because government sets and implements the rules. With respect to privatisation we also encourage corporate social responsibility to be expanded to make sure that corporations understand the need to ensure respect for economic and social rights because they’re increasingly the providers of the services.

What we are seeking is a new relationship between national states and the international order, in which governments accept that their legitimacy as governments makes them accountable to citizens to defend and deliver basic universal human rights, as codified in the conventions.

The American exception

openDemocracy: But isn’t the current of opinion and policy in the United States going against this? There is a strong sense in the United States, especially since 9/11, that America needs to take extraordinary measures and that existing multilateral frameworks and institutions are unhelpful.

Mary Robinson: A passionate sense of national sovereignty and suspicion of international law in the United States predates 9/11, but so does an openness to what I am arguing for. I’m very happy now to be based in the United States. I personally spend a lot of my time in universities and in business communities and in the forums the country has for talking about world affairs. Just over the past months I’ve been in Kansas, Missouri, Florida, Washington State, Virginia and I speak to quite large audiences, as well as the Ivy League. They’ve chosen to come and listen to me, and I’m very interested at how receptive they are to this message.

In terms of the Conventions, the United States is the only country along with Somalia not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In American constitutional law, in theory in relation to children only parents have rights. But the Convention on the Rights of the Child says children have rights, including rights to information and participation. So this would require that US law would have to be changed because of the treaty. They can’t yet accept this. Peter Sutherland has talked to me, as he did in his interview with openDemocracy.net, about difficulties he had in the establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), to get the United States to agree to ratify it because it had consequences for their sovereignty.

It is a great problem for the true international agenda of human rights that the United States, uniquely among industrialised countries, has not ratified three main instruments, has not ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child, or the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and we could have so much richer a debate and dialogue on international human rights standards if the superpower would sign up to the agenda.

Harold Hongju Koh, the newly appointed Dean of the Yale Law School, has written convincingly in The Economist recently about the need to address this problem of American exceptionalism. He has been involved in a number of briefs for the US Supreme Court that cite European cases. In a recent case, Justice Kennedy for the majority of the Supreme Court referred to European law, including a case that I had brought to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The fact that the United States Supreme Court is citing European law may be a chink in American exceptionalism, it means that at the judicial level America is willing to be influenced by international court cases.

Hopefully Congress too will stop being so blinkered and narrow on the sovereignty of the American people, and will instead actually look at the legislation and experience of other systems and will begin to accept that if you live in a global world and you want to champion liberty in it, then you have you got to sign up to that global world.

I’m not interested in scoring points or being over-critical of the US administration. I want to find the entry points to try and get it back on track so that the United States can get out of the present disastrous situation it’s in, and back into being a constructive force for human rights in the world.

At present the United States has lost some credibility on civil or political rights because there have been so many erosions of civil liberties. I recommend you look at a report titled “The New Normal” by the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. Since 9/11 the United States has been followed by countries with bad records, such as the former Soviet Union countries, into erosions of human rights. Because the United States has changed its standards it is undermining civil liberties elsewhere.

Rights and civil society

openDemocracy: You seem to be putting considerable emphasis on social and economic rights as well as political and civil rights.

Mary Robinson: Yes, it was the great achievement of Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1948, that she knew that the agenda had to bring together strong civil and political rights but also a progressive implementation of economic, social and cultural rights.

That was the universal agenda.

The civil liberties agenda alone would have been seen by the rest of the world as a western agenda. The Universal Declaration has a balance, but then we had the cold war, and unfortunately there are two covenants which divide up the body of rights. We should have had only one covenant. Then we would have kept a single framework. But because we had two covenants the western world by and large didn’t take economic, social and cultural rights seriously. Now, I think, Europe is beginning to do so, and this is dramatically important for the credibility of human rights internationally.

openDemocracy: You’re trying to get to a one covenant situation?

Mary Robinson: We want to broaden understanding and agreement around the fact that both strands of human rights are equally important, and when you really understand that you understand the universality and the interconnectedness of human rights.

openDemocracy: So ethical globalisation is another way of putting these two parts together?

Mary Robinson: It is in a way, yes. That certainly is an important part of what we’re doing.

openDemocracy: But won’t this be seen as imposing western values?

Mary Robinson: No. I’ve just come back from an Arab women’s summit, and I saw very bright, motivated Arab women engaged in how they could use the human rights framework. Not all Arab countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of the Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), for example. I encouraged them to campaign that those countries should ratify.

Most Arab states are putting very strong reservations both to CEDAW and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We must encourage those who are working on those governments either to modify or lift entirely those reservations, and expand the understanding that these are very good ways of making your governments accountable. Use this to help remove discrimination against women, such as in marriage laws. Freedom from discrimination for women, ensuring that female children can learn to read, these are human needs for half the human race, not western values.

openDemocracy: Are you saying that governments should be taken to court for social and economic rights violations?

Mary Robinson: There are some court cases on economic, social and cultural issues now. There’s Indian case law and South African case law in particular on the right to water, which of course is central to the right to life. In general, I don’t think that economic, social and cultural rights are primarily a matter of going to court. They are most useful today as commitments which can help ensure effective and equitable policy-making at every level.

Sharing experience and building public support for the full range of rights is more powerful than legal cases.

A new international network – the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net.org) – has been created by activists from around the world. They are sharing the experiences of bringing rights arguments to a number of different global challenges.

They are asking one another: “What’s the World Bank doing in your country? What’s the impact? What about the IMF and structural adjustment? How do you demonstrate the impact of international policies on local communities?” “What strategies are you using to hold your government accountable?”

It’s terrific, there is a great momentum with what’s happening in Latin America being shared with Asia, being shared with Africa and Europe. Economists, environmentalists, human rights activists, development people, are for the first time sharing across regions and I think that this is the beginning of an alternative power system which will increasingly oblige governments to implement in this century the legal commitments drafted and refined in the last half of the 20th century.

openDemocracy: But what about the civil society organisations themselves, no one elected them?

Mary Robinson: That’s a very good question. I’m concerned that NGOs become much more accountable as they become more influential. One of our partners, the International Council on Human Rights Policy, has prepared a draft report encouraging NGOs to become more transparent and have better accounting systems, saying who are their members, where their money comes from. Some NGOs resent this and say: look, we don’t have the resources for this, we don’t have the professionalism. I’m actually talking to foundations now about helping NGOs to have the extra cash flow to professionalise themselves.

Also, of course, as well as NGOs there are false non-governmental organisations, that are in fact Government Organised NGOs or GONGOs. Various developing countries are now breeding GONGOs which are a corrupt way of saying we have freedom in our country: “Look at all the NGOs, look at all the newspapers”, when actually they are controlled by the government which has packed its GONGOs with tame acolytes and controls the funding.

openDemocracy: In July 2003 you mentioned a linked problem of government influence, with the millennium challenge account and the Bush administration’s expressed commitment to increasing support, for example, for fighting HIV/Aids.

Mary Robinson: The millennium challenge account stipulates criteria for countries to receive development aid, and some are civil liberties criteria on human rights. The way this has been done does cause enormous problems. In fairness to the Bush administration, we are talking about a lot of additional money. It has done far more than the Clinton administration in providing funding for development and to tackle HIV and Aids.

But the criteria for accessing this funding is very worrying because it’s a different set of criteria than that established for the dispersal of global funds for Aids or development which puts the focus on a balance between the civil, the political and the economic, social and cultural. I hope there will be a conference sometime in 2004 at a venue such as Stanford University’s Centre for Democracy, Development and Rule of Law (CDDRL) on this as they have some of the people who drew up the criteria for the millennium challenge account. We need an open, constructive discussion on why the criteria may be seen as damaging to development policy and whether they could be broadened.

Human rights and faith

openDemocracy: You say you are working to make the world a better place, as you put it; what are the forces that are opposed to what you’re doing?

Mary Robinson: I think the main source of opposition is power, the vested interests of existing power that wishes to keep its power. Take for example traditional, religious male establishments.

openDemocracy: Your framework is universal and secular and you are from Ireland which was one of the first places to witness the armed expression of religious differences in its modern form. Is this why you also mention religion as part of the opposition to human rights?

Mary Robinson: No. My concern is different kinds of fundamentalism, to use a shortcut. This can be as damaging when it is Christian as anything else. Thus Christian fundamentalists seek to roll back women’s right to choose in the United States, and then also insist that money against Aids must not go to organisations that help people obtain their reproductive rights. These are extremely worrying trends. In Johannesburg at the world conference on sustainable development a paragraph 47 on women’s health nearly put the women’s movement back to before the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) in Beijing in 1995.

A compromise was reached at the last minute. There are no plans for a tenth anniversary conference to mark Beijing because the women’s movement is too afraid that if we had a meeting now we would go backwards because of this terrible alliance of, in effect, fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims.

Happily there is also a progressive alliance on the other side. I’ve been invited to Sweden in 2004 to a big international conference that the Christian, Muslim and Jewish institutions are organising to consider the role of religions in conflict, under the title “Tools for Peace?”.

So I agree with those who argue that it is possible to distil from the religions of the world their common values and relevance. As far as I’m concerned I am involved in a complementary process with people who have a moral or spiritual commitment to human rights.

openDemocracy: So you don’t see terrorism as religious?

Mary Robinson: No. When 9/11 happened I guessed immediately that the shock would put human rights under more pressure than ever before.

I sat with my colleagues to assess the impact. Already the response from the White House and the Pentagon was, understandably, that “we have been attacked and we are at war.” But I argued against using the language of war.

The attacks on the World Trade Center using civilian planes with full tanks to kill as many people as possible were a crime against humanity. Under the statute of the International Criminal Court, under existing jurisprudence, the world should unite. Everything that happened immediately afterwards actually fitted that: UN Security Council resolution 1373, even going into Afghanistan because the Taliban were protecting the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, could have been done in that framework. Instead, we are now being offered an “endless war” with no peace in sight. An endless war against terrorism can tend to inflate the terrorists, because being at war is attractive to some angry, unemployed, disaffected youth.

Human rights and international trade

openDemocracy: In your recent Deneke Lecture you extend the human rights agenda to issues of trade, which came to the forefront in a different, but also dramatic way with the showdown at the WTO ministerial in Cancún in September 2003.

Mary Robinson: I am no expert in trade law. But as President of Oxfam I helped to lead its delegation at Cancún and learned a great deal. The “Doha Development Round” of trade negotiations, launched in November 2001, was intended to help poor countries by lowering trade barriers, especially in agriculture. It stalled dramatically in Cancún. This will impact on poverty and therefore it is a human rights issue.

Regardless of who was to blame for the breakdown I believe there is an opportunity now for reflection on how the international trade system measures up against the values at the heart of human rights. These are shared values like participation, accountability and equality with which most people throughout the world intuitively identify. Those values seem to be far from centre-stage in trade negotiations today.

Take participation. Powerful interests often have access to information on trade negotiations or are able to create opportunities for input while smaller countries that are members of the WTO are not always able to participate fully in the WTO decision-making that affects them.

The structures of the WTO need to be reformed to increase participation. There must be a greater sense of shared ownership of the substance of the trade negotiation agenda. Decisions about issues to be negotiated, and in which sequence they should be taken, should rest with all WTO members, not only the most powerful.

There’s a widespread perception that the WTO is a secret and non-democratic institution which is unresponsive to civil society. I believe the new Consultative Board on the future of the multilateral trading system should consider such issues. I hope it will make broad recommendations on how the structure of the WTO can reflect the need for greater participation by all governments as well as by civil society.

For example, the term ‘human rights’ has been too often associated with conditionality, and with concerns of developing countries that in order to benefit from open trade they would be required to implement immediately labour and environmental standards of a comparable level to those applied in industrialised countries. At the same time, debates about the primacy of trade as against human rights legal codes have contributed to maintaining the unfortunate impression that the two bodies of law are pursuing incompatible aims.

One of the main ways the WTO carries out its function of oversight and accountability is by reviewing all aspects of each member’s trade policies through something called the Trade Policy Review Mechanism (TPRM).

The trouble is that TPRM tends to focus narrowly on a member’s trade liberalisation policies, as well as on the impacts on other members, rather than on the broader impacts on its own citizens. If used more creatively, these reviews could help bring human rights concerns and issues of accountability into the debate over trade policy at the national level.

For instance, it is now beyond dispute that the patent rules of the WTO – contained in the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) – have had a negative impact on the price of medicines in poor countries, and have contributed to the lack of access to treatments for diseases such as HIV/Aids. The agreement required all WTO members – other than the poorest countries – to uphold twenty-year pharmaceutical patents, thereby delaying the entry of cheaper drugs into countries where they are needed most. These are literally life or death issues.

Just before the Cancún ministerial meeting a further agreement was reached to relax these patent rules. Unfortunately, the agreement is so riddled with red tape, restrictions and conditions that governments may be deterred from using it. Experts – especially from the World Health Organisation (WHO) – agree that it is vital that this new agreement be fully implemented, and that developing countries be encouraged to make use of it. It is vital that the TRIPS Council, the WTO body in charge of monitoring these patent rules, closely monitor and encourage the application of this new agreement, and find ways to improve cooperation with the WHO in this area.

Using human rights commitments more effectively, either as part of negotiations in the WTO or as part of the trade policy review process, poses issues of equality in a practical venue. At EGI we want to help level the playing field. We will provide rigorous human rights analysis of specific trade issues which can be used by developing countries as part of their negotiation strategies at the WTO. We also plan to develop greater dialogue and understanding about how human rights commitments can be used as a constructive element of trade policy review and dispute settlement with the aim of creating a WTO which works fairly for everyone and does indeed help end world poverty.


openDemocracy: While the impact of trade on poverty and basic rights will continue for the long term, can we finish with a question about the immediate situation in Iraq. What is your view of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and its aftermath?

When I was High Commissioner I frequently called on the world community to oppose the numerous, terrible violations perpetrated by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I also strongly supported the UN special rapporteur on Iraq who drew attention both to these continuing violations and to the impact of sanctions and the terrible further burdens these imposed especially on the economic and social rights of the Iraqi people.

So I am very happy that the regime has gone. I feel my record in opposing it has been vindicated by all that we have learnt since, such as the public exposure of mass graves. Everything we have learnt confirms the appalling nature of a regime which the international community failed to condemn adequately in human rights terms prior to 2001. I do not support, however, individual countries taking military action against another country because of its human rights record, or subsequently justifying taking such action on human rights grounds.

The question now is how best to help the Iraqi people build a democratic and free Iraqi society that ensures respect for the rights of all Iraqis.

In my view this will demand a fundamental change in the configuration of power in Iraq. We will not see a satisfactory human rights situation when the ruling power in the country is perceived as an occupying power because it is, indeed, an occupying power.

We need a different approach. All countries are particular and no models are perfect. But we need a similar approach to that adopted in Afghanistan and East Timor, where the supreme power was exercised by the United Nations mandated to oversee as swift a transition as possible to genuine self-government. That is what is needed in Baghdad.

So my answer goes back to what I was saying about what happened after 9/11. From Iraq to Guantanamo Bay, international standards and the framework of international law are being given less when they should be given more importance. I am pleased that the courts in the United States are beginning to review what has happened to those detained in Guantanamo Bay. Similarly in Iraq we need to bring our strategies back within the framework of international norms and law.

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