Mary Robinson is a defender of human rights who has carried and developed her vision of a more just world through leadership and contribution across various sectors. With several honorary doctoral degrees from academic institutions across the world and a multitude of prestigious awards and honors that recognize her contributions to the global institutionalization of human rights, there is much evidence of her long and broad record of dedication to building a global order founded on universal principles of human freedom and dignity. The positions she’s held and the initiatives she’s pursued reflect a diverse set of interests. However, throughout her long career there is a unifying thread and a steadfast commitment that brings coherence and direction to Robinson’s endeavors: her commitment to improving the human condition through human rights.
Robinson is a lawyer, and began her political career in 1969 as a senator in the Irish legislature. As senator, she advocated for a range of liberal positions, including several regarding women’s rights, such as the need to end to the requirement that women resign from public service upon marriage. Twenty years later, the Labour party tapped her to run for president. She won the election, and in 1990 became Ireland’s first female president. She was popular, and is credited with energizing the office of the Irish presidency with a degree of assertiveness that it had lacked until her tenure. Notably, while president she signed two bills that represented long-standing positions of hers: one fully legalizing contraception and the other decriminalizing homosexuality.
Immediately after serving as Ireland’s president, Robinson transitioned into a new role as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She acted in this role from 1997 until 2002 and successfully worked to implement a sweeping reform that integrated human rights considerations into all of the United Nations’ activities.
After leaving the UN, she led and participated in several projects. She founded “Realizing Rights,” an ethical globalization initiative that advocates for the needs of the world’s marginalized through the process of globalization. She established the “Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice” as a way to facilitate action on climate justice and empower poor people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Furthermore, she has continued to act in special roles for the UN, international organizations, academic institutions and advisory councils.
Robinson’s life work has been varied and multi-directional. Her involvement with the world has not been constrained to a single issue. Nevertheless, from the early days of her career, Robinson has kept her eyes fixed on the path that leads to greater and more equitably distributed rights. As she’s traversed that path, she has crafted both a holistic and comprehensive vision, but also one that is consistently committed to one goal, to elevate the status of human rights in the practice of governance and the commitment to social action.
In the latest act in her career, she has continued her work in human rights as part of The Elders and through her own foundation, the Mary Robinson – Climate Justice Foundation. The Elders a group of independent global leaders who were originally convened by the late Nelson Mandela to use their influence, experience, and perspectives to work on peacebuilding, and the reduction of human suffering. It is a unique model that allows for structured, collaborative guidance from lifelong advocates and public servants who have personally navigated paths through the complexities of large scale societal transformations. She has created The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice to facilitate action on climate justice to empower the poorest people and countries in their efforts to achieve sustainable and people-centered development, most recently calling for a Marshall Plan-styled agreement on climate change to ensure global access to renewable energy, and acknowledge its role in tackling poverty.
Both of these initiatives continue building a vision that weaves together various threads of justice, climate change, women’s rights, and poverty alleviation, through a singular lens of rights.