Mary Robinson Reflects on Working Toward Peace
Language can be important in defining actions and in shaping
reactions. I have always argued that terrorist bombings
against civilian targets, no matter how appalling their
scale, are not war but vile acts of criminality. Indeed,
at a certain scale the perpetrators commit crimes against
humanity under international law. The focus and determination
of civilized nations to hunt down such criminals, their
supply lines and money trails, should not be blurred by
conferring on them the status of being at war. It has been
disturbing to hear words like 'appeasement' used to denigrate
the democratic electoral process of the Spanish people,
who have a long and stoic experience of combating terrorism.
Despite the advances in technology and communications that
link us more closely than ever before, there remains the
reality of division at so many levels in our world. We see
these divides between rich and poor, between women and men,
between different religions or ethnic groups, between citizens
and migrants. We know as well that these divides are at
the core of so many of today's conflicts.
In my experience, both as President of Ireland and as United
Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, such divides
were all too evident when I visited some of the globe's
most catastrophic conflict zones. I listened to civilian
victims, government leaders and combatants alike in places
both near to home, like Northern Ireland, and far away,
such as Rwanda, Chechnya, Colombia, East Timor, Sierra Leone,
the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan.
A common thread in each situation was an unwillingness
on both sides to see 'the other', or 'the enemy', as an
individual with hopes and dreams, and with equal rights.
I saw how patterns of discrimination in a society drove
wedges between communities. And, all too often, I saw how
corrupt and undemocratic governments fueled intolerance
and denied people basic rights, thereby precipitating dissent
But you might ask, if the problems and their consequences
are so clear, why does it continue to be so difficult to
act differently, and accept, as Maya Angelou put it in her
wonderful poem, Human Family, that "We are more alike,
my friends, than we are unalike"?
I believe that getting at the answer requires, first of
all, that we learn to deal more constructively with a very
basic human emotion - fear. As we all know, fear comes in
many forms. Fear of difference, fear that economic or social
position is threatened, fear that identity could be lost
in an increasingly globalized world - all bring about a
range of reactions, and if pushed to extremes, to hatred,
intolerance and violence.
You can find signs of contemporary individual and group
fear just by looking at public perceptions of current issues.
Last year, for example, the Pew Research Center for the
People and the Press published a survey conducted in 44
countries which revealed that, although people generally
have a favorable view of increased economic connections
commonly associated with globalization, sizeable majorities
of those polled said their "traditional ways of life"
were being threatened and agreed with the statement that
"our way of life needs to be protected against foreign
A similar finding can be seen in an EU poll released just
last week which found that while the majority of Europeans
agreed that there was an economic need for more immigrants,
eighty percent still want a tightening of passport and other
entry controls for foreigners as part of a European Union
asylum and immigration policy. Clearly, fear is one of the
drivers of such seemingly contradictory views. And unfortunately
in Europe today there are politicians and political parties
only too willing to exploit those fears.
If fear is a main factor, education and factual information
provide a remedy. For example, how many people have really
considered the demographic realities that developed economies
are currently facing? Aging populations and changes in the
workforce make it imperative that industrialized economies
increase immigration if they are to sustain themselves.
Moreover, how many realize that money sent home by migrants
to their families - in the form of remittances - is a growing
source of income that is vital to many countries? The International
Monetary Fund reported that in 2002 alone remittances from
migrants were around $100 billion, as compared with only
$51 billion in global development assistance. How many more
people would be forced to leave their homes if not for the
remittances coming from their family members abroad?
As avenues for legal migration become more and more limited,
would-be migrants have increasingly resorted to illegal
entry and unauthorized stay. This has fuelled the activities
of human smugglers and traffickers who show little respect
for the humanity of their cargo. Unknown numbers have died
in transit and those who do reach their destination often
find themselves trapped in a cycle of abuse and exploitation
- giving a new face to slavery in the modern era. They are
part of a growing population of undocumented immigrants
who find themselves vulnerable to exploitation in employment,
to racist crime, and to security measures in the context
of the ongoing 'war on terrorism'. Can any of us say that
we truly identify with the situations faced by millions
of today's migrants?
The public debate in most countries around migration has
thus far been marked by negativity, hostility and fear of
migrants. What is needed today is a new approach, anchored
in human rights, that acknowledges both the potential problems
and benefits for receiving and sending countries.
At the international level, a Global Commission on International
Migration has been established to study these issues further
and make policy recommendations to UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan in 2005. I am pleased to be a member of this
Commission which must seek to reframe in a more positive
way the migration debate, to understand that the rights
of people who have left their countries in search of greater
human security must be protected and that governments -
both sending and receiving - must be accountable. Last month,
at the Commission's first meeting in Stockholm, Commission
members agreed that political leadership on this issue is
In a speech at the White House last January to announce
new proposals on US immigration policy, President Bush set
out some of the problems that need to be addressed. The
"As a nation that values immigration, and depends
on immigration, we should have immigration laws that work
and make us proud. Yet today we do not. Instead, we see
many employers turning to the illegal labor market. We see
millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear
and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy."
President Bush went on to say that the challenge was to
make US immigration laws "more rational, and more humane".
I recognize the importance of focusing on working closely
with Mexico as it is the source of at least three-fifths
of the United States' undocumented immigrant population.
At the same time, I would point out the need to reflect
seriously on policies concerning those from other neighboring
countries who seek refuge and economic opportunity in the
United States. The present situation in Haiti comes to mind.
Present U.S. policy towards those seeking to flee Haiti
risks violating obligations under international law. According
to reports from U.S. based groups such as Human Rights First,
Haitians currently interdicted at sea are not informed of
their right to seek asylum and are not interviewed by any
U.S. official to determine whether or not they are in danger
of persecution if returned.
As difficult as a new inflow of refugees would be to manage,
we should call on the government to recognize that no migrants
should be returned to Haiti if the situation there is so
dangerous that their safety cannot be assured.
Important as the current focus on migration is, it should
not cause us to neglect other forms of discrimination and
intolerance which persist in the world today. One of the
most disturbing of these is anti-Semitism. Much recent media
coverage of anti-Semitism has centered on the situation
in Europe where synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been
defaced and Jews have been physically attacked on the streets.
While many in Europe will point out that the situation today
is a complex one that cannot be easily equated with historical
anti-Semitism on the continent, it is vital that Europeans
take effective action to stop these reprehensible events.
Nor should we forget the anti-Semitic diatribes so common
in the Middle East. Even in the United States, on some prestigious
college campuses, there have been attempts to cast Israel
as a pariah state and equate its actions with those of South
African apartheid, a first step toward questioning Israel's
right to exist.
Allow me to reflect briefly on an experience during my
term as High Commissioner when I came face to face with
such anti-Semitism. It was in a setting I had hoped would
be one of tolerance and respect - The Durban World Conference
I should give some brief background on the Conference for
those of you who may not be familiar with this event which
took place the first week of September 2001, just days before
the terrible attacks on the U.S. on 9/11. The decision to
hold this Conference, the third UN global forum to address
the subject of racism, was taken by the General Assembly
in 1997. It was decided that the Conference should address
in a comprehensive manner all forms of racism, racial discrimination,
xenophobia and related contemporary forms of intolerance,
that it should be action-oriented and focus on practical
measures to eradicate racism, including measures of prevention,
education and protection and the provision of effective
remedies for victims.
I should also explain my own role. At its session in 1998,
the UN Commission on Human Rights requested the UN Secretary
General to designate the High Commissioner for Human Rights
as Secretary General of the World Conference. It is common
for a Secretary General of a UN Conference to be a senior
UN official who is mandated with the main responsibility
for the preparations for and secretariat functions of the
The decision to hold this conference in Durban, South Africa
was fitting given the country's own legacy of racism and
its inspiring example of reconciliation. As Secretary General
of the Conference, I was determined to play a role in helping
make it a global event which would encourage each society
to ask itself hard questions. Is it sufficiently inclusive?
Is it non-discriminatory? Are its norms of behavior based
on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights? How best could the Conference confront
the many horrors of racism - from slavery to the Holocaust,
from Apartheid to ethnic cleansing - and agree comprehensive
measures to prevent them from happening again? To encourage
positive thinking, I had earlier presented a Vision Statement
of positive commitments, under the patronage of Nelson Mandela,
which more than 80 Heads of State signed and which I hoped
might influence the government debates.
Unfortunately, some participants, both inside and outside
the Conference, wanted to make the conflict in the Middle
East, which at the time had entered a new phase of violence,
the principal focus of Durban. At the Non-Governmental Forum,
a parallel meeting which, as is common practice at UN conferences,
was also held in Durban to coincide with the inter-governmental
discussions, some participants resorted to blatant anti-Semitic
speech and activities to convey their message.
And so, at a Conference in which we were supposed to be
defending human rights values, we found ourselves faced
with appalling bigotry and intolerance. I and many others
condemned such language and, in the circumstances, I refused
to recommend the final NGO document to the Conference.
Meanwhile in the Conference itself, which was, of course,
inter-governmental, attempts were also being made to insert
unacceptable language concerning Israel which had first
emerged - in brackets, and therefore not as agreed text
- at the Asia regional preparatory meeting for the Conference
which was held in Tehran in February 2001. I should point
out here that, as is the practice in UN conferences, governments,
during regional preparatory meetings, are entitled to place
on the table for discussion issues they consider relevant.
Such issues are then discussed and negotiated in a lengthy
process that ultimately reflects a global consensus in the
final document. Usually agreement is reached in the last
hour of the final day!
The decision by the U.S. and Israeli governments to leave
the Conference before its conclusion was regrettable because
it occurred during intense efforts to remove the unacceptable
language and make the event a success. In the end, all anti-Semitic
language was successfully removed, but the terrible attacks
of 9/11 three days later understandably prevented a considered
appraisal of the Durban outcome.
Now, more than two years later, I find that many people
want to understand what happened in Durban, yet few here
in the United States are aware of the real progress that
was actually made. The final Declaration and Program of
Action are powerful tools for lobbying governments, educating
people, empowering civil societies and establishing frameworks
for dialogue. Their specific calls and strategies for countering
anti-Semitism, challenging rising xenophobia and protecting
minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants and other vulnerable
groups should be used and not disregarded out of hand.
Equally important, Durban created an opportunity for victim
groups around the world, many of whom had been without a
voice on the world stage, to articulate their concerns and
engage their governments in a new and powerful way. Groups
representing the Roma, the African-Descendant communities
in Latin America, migrants, the Dalits of India and many
other marginalized peoples found in Durban an energizing
place to forge new alliances and strengthen grassroots efforts
to address the problems they faced at home.
Perhaps what people in the U.S. most want to know is: what
lessons can we learn from the Durban experience in countering
anti-Semitism today? I would say, first, that governments
everywhere must acknowledge that anti-Semitism is a virulent
form of racism and that anti-Semitic acts need to be seen
as violations of international human rights law. Its governments
need systematically to monitor and report on hate crimes,
and to adopt aggressive measures to prosecute those who
Second, I believe we must all be vigilant in distinguishing
legitimate criticism of acts by the Israeli security forces
- which have raised serious and legitimate human rights
concerns - from the anti-Semitism that masquerades as concern.
While rightly condemning suicide attacks and other assaults
against civilians, the global community must set and honor
clear lines in the debate about current Israeli practices
with respect to the Palestinians.
Supporters of Israel need to recognize that criticisms
of Israeli policies and practices are not in and of themselves
anti-Semitic. Many human rights groups here and elsewhere
are sharply - and I believe rightly - critical of some of
Israel's practices, such as targeted killings, based on
the application of universally accepted international human
rights norms. The Jewish community should engage in this
discussion, and use its influence to challenge the government
of Israel whenever its policies and security forces violate
these international standards.
At the same time, those who advocate for the rights of
Palestinians must ensure that their criticisms and related
actions do not become broadside attacks against Jews and
the Jewish State. It is at this point that they become racist.
The conflict in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians
-- and by extension much of the Arab world -- will become
even harder to address if the rhetoric continues in this
way; if anger against Israel continues to spill over into
broader patterns of antagonism against Jews, and if the
speech devolves into outright racism and calling into question
Israel's right to exist.
And just as there has been a rise in anti-Semitism, so
also, in the aftermath of 9/11, there has been a sharp increase
in Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment. Families and even
whole communities live in fear or endure new levels of hostility.
Students are unable to obtain visas, academics cannot attend
conferences and people worry about traveling out of the
country and being unable to return.
All of this leads me to a final point that I believe we
must look at together in an open and honest way. There are
some, in this country and elsewhere, who suggest that human
rights concerns, including the specific issues of discrimination
I have been raising this evening, might get in the way of
winning the peace or the war against terrorism. But experience
throughout the world, including my own homeland of Ireland,
demonstrates that this is wrong thinking. We must, and do,
condemn and combat terrorism. But there can be no stable
peace, no true human security without human rights and real
public participation. There can be no true enjoyment of
human rights by all where some are excluded by discrimination
Can the future be different? Can we come to accept greater
shared responsibility for realizing the rights which we
proclaim as being basic to a life of dignity for every individual?
Let me share with you the deep sense of hope and encouragement
I experienced just last week in Ireland. In a hotel near
the border with Northern Ireland I had been invited to address
a conference of local community groups from areas such as
North Belfast and North Dublin where local people over several
months had been working through a rights-based approach
to their problems. The theme of their conference was 'participation
and the practice of rights in making connections and owning
I met senior citizens from both communities, and women
from the Shankill Protestant and the Falls Catholic women's
centres in Belfast. I met youth workers, former prisoners
and community activists, all engaged in a conscious attempt
to relate human rights standards to their local experience
in poor housing estates and inner city environments. In
the process, they had forged close friendships across the
religious and political divides of the past. They were living
Eleanor Roosevelt's philosophy, that if human rights are
to matter at all they must matter 'in small places close
to home.' 'It isn't easy,' they told me, 'but the experience
has bonded us together'.
I am also encouraged by examples of innovative thinking
here in the United States. Some of you may be aware of a
report issued last year by the Migration Policy Institute,
titled America's Challenge which, among other recommendations,
proposes the creation of an independent national commission
on integration to address the specific challenges of national
unity presented by post-September 11 events and actions.
The report recommends that such a commission should be guided
by the principle that the long-term interests of the nation
lie in policies that strengthen the social and political
weaving into it, rather than pulling out of
it, all immigrant and ethnic communities. In the post-September
11 world, this means paying special attention to the experiences
of Arab and Muslim communities, as well as to South Asian
communities who are sometimes mistaken to be Muslim or Arab."
The report calls for new policies that consciously and systematically
prevent stigmatization of Muslim and Arab communities and
actively see them as adding to the social, political, and
security strengths of the country. It highlights the importance
of educational instruction about Islam and Muslims in schools
and workplaces and encourages interfaith dialogue at national
and local community levels.
The report points out that promoting tolerance and pluralism
is a huge challenge.
Like any other ethnic or religious minority, the Muslim
population alone cannot dispel the prejudices about its
communities and religion. In the end, it is up to all of
us, including our governments, to share this responsibility,
to find 'the other'.
I conclude with a simple truth which President Sadat understood
so well: whether our world becomes a more brutal or a more
peaceful place, rests in our own hands. Human rights have
become the world's common benchmark for justice but they
have yet to become our common framework for action. In giving
his life for peace Anwar Sadat gave inspiration to generations
to come. Yes, the challenges ahead are formidable, the familiar
catalogue of problems and future obstacles remains to be
faced. Yes, we have a long road to travel before human rights
will be secured for all. But I am convinced that this is
a time when civil society world-wide can make its voice
heard as never before.
If we can overcome doubts and fears, if we can build on
shared values and learn to recognize ourselves in 'the other',
this century can, after such a tragic beginning, become
one of human development and human security for all - a
century of human rights and peace.
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