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EU: Robinson Sees Strengthening Of New Members' Influence, Identity

Mary Robinson at Forum 2000 on October 9 (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, October 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Mary Robinson was the president of Ireland (1990-97) and also the UN's high commissioner for human rights (1997-2002). RFE/RL's Natalia Tchourikova and Kathleen Moore spoke with Robinson on the sidelines of the 10th annual Forum 2000 in Prague (October 8-10), a major international venue for exploring ways to avoid conflict. RFE/RL has a close relationship with Forum 2000, whose theme this year is "Dilemmas of Global Coexistence."

RFE/RL: Mary Robinson, may I ask you about the Human Rights Council? This was a body meant to replace a predecessor that came under a lot of criticism for failing to address human rights abusers on the commission. But the council has just ended its session, and one group at least, Human Rights Watch, called it a huge disappointment, again failing to address some of the big human rights issues, such as Darfur. Do you share the view that it's a disappointment?

Mary Robinson: Well, like Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty, and some of the other major human rights organizations, I did welcome the establishment of the Human Rights Council, and I felt that it had a real possibility of trying to break through sensitive political issues with a human rights leadership, which is never easy. The current president of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador [Luis Alfonso] de Alba of Mexico, is very committed, and it had a reasonably good start.

I think there were two things that worried me. One was when the war broke out in Lebanon, and you had the response of Israel, which is very questionable about being disproportionate, and raised issues of civilian casualties and displacement and destruction of property, and bridges, etc., which raises issues of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. But you also had Hizballah sending missiles into civilian populations in northern Israel.

I hoped that the Human Rights Council would act in a human rights way, and set up a commission of inquiry into both. Alas -- and this was a problem of the previous Human Rights Commission -- it only set up a commission of inquiry into what had happened in Israel, by the Israel forces. And that is not the human rights approach; that is the political approach. And if the Human Rights Council continues to taint human rights with the political approach, this time because of the Organization of the Islamic Conference countries.... They had the majority, they wanted to hit Israel, not do human rights work.
How can you have a Human Rights Council that's not absolutely outraged by what's happening in Darfur?

So that's one very big problem. And then, I would very much agree with Human Rights Watch. How can you have a Human Rights Council that's not absolutely outraged by what's happening in Darfur? It's getting worse by the day. There are women being raped, there are children dying, there are populations being displaced, there's a militia that's being supported in a complicit way by a government, and the fact that they didn't bring it to our attention in a more urgent way, and have more urgent action.... The Security Council was also involved, but the Human Rights Council is the voice. "We the people" is the first three words of the charter.

But I still hope that the Human Rights Council will work well, because the United Nations needs leadership on human rights. My successor, Louise Arbour, is trying very hard with her colleagues in the Office of High Commissioner to support that leadership.

What Eastern Europe Can Learn From Ireland

RFE/RL: I'd like to get to your experience as an Irish president. When you became the Irish president, you said that you would like to be a leader for all the Irish people all around the world. Now, Ireland has become a place where immigrants from Eastern Europe come, and they have to learn how to stay in touch with their people around the world and in Ireland also. What is the Irish lesson for them?

Robinson: It's a very interesting question. I do very well remember, on the night of the election count, the excitement of knowing that I had the honor to become the elected president of my country -- the first woman [president]. I said I would put a light in the window of my official residence for all of those throughout our sad history who had to emigrate. That light became a very powerful symbol of connectedness with the Irish diaspora, the wider Irish family.

Now, as you've said, it's implicit in your question, Ireland has changed quite dramatically. It has become a receiving country of migrants from other countries. I'm now based in New York, and I've been observing that Ireland has a mixed record of how we are coping. There a lot of NGOs that are really concerned that Ireland remember its history, and is a truly open, welcoming, receiving country that integrates but doesn't force anybody to lose their identity; that it's welcoming in a true sense.

The numbers are quite striking for the size of Ireland: very significant numbers, suddenly, and this poses its own problem. We know, even from the Irish experience, that many who go from Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic, to work in the modern Ireland don't intend to live there forever. They go like the Irish did: to help their families, to further their own careers, and they want to go back to their own countries, or maybe to go elsewhere. So, we need to both make them welcome, but to know that they don't actually want to become Irish. [Although] some do.

I think, in particular, we need to be very concerned [because] probably it's easier for the Irish people to easily find common ground in an Irish pub with those who come from the Czech Republic, or from Latvia, because we have the same sense of humor [for example], once we get over the language barrier. With those who come from Nigeria, Rwanda, from parts of Africa, we have to make more of an effort. And that's sometimes where you get these problems of racism. And they are more likely to want to stay longer, and certainly there are now many families in Ireland who are of a different background, but their children are Irish citizens, and they want to be fully integrated.

RFE/RL: Do your colleagues from Eastern Europe ask you about the Irish experience -- how to stay in touch, how to get those people back to their home country? And if not, how to have a strong diaspora with strong support?

Robinson: Certainly, I really do encourage, but I sense that I don't have much to tell countries like Poland, or the Czech Republic, or Latvia about keeping in touch. I have the impression that they are at least as strong in that as Ireland was when I was president. We had not looked after our emigrants. It was part of a rather sad story in our literature, in our songs, in our stories: the loss of people, first of all with the terrible potato famine, and then afterwards. We thought it was almost a natural part of being Irish.

For example, when you salute people in Irish, you begin with the word "Slainte," which is like health. But the last part of it is you wish for them, in Gaelic, "Bas in Eirinn," which means "death in Ireland," and that's saying, "We hope you may be lucky enough to be one of the lucky ones who comes back and dies in Ireland." And we didn't do very much about it. Whereas there's a sense now of linking with the diaspora more consciously, and it really matters. I would really encourage the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, Slovakia, countries of this region, to do that.

Not European Enough?

RFE/RL: One recent survey indicated that immigrants from different parts of Europe get different treatment in Ireland, and the worst is toward those who are not in the European Union and don't have any prospects to get into the European Union. Is that a problem of Ireland, or the countries of origin, to solve this?

Robinson: This is a little of what I was saying earlier. It's easier to drink with, socialize with, those who look a little like you, that you share a sense of humor....

RFE/RL: Well, people from the Balkans, from Moldova, from Ukraine, are Europeans, but not European enough for the European Union.

Robinson: Well, that's a fair point, then. To be honest, I'm more conscious that Irish people need to not be racist, because I'm very interested in trying to tackle racism. But I have to say that I would not have seen a distinction. I have not heard in Ireland, personally, a distinction between different parts of this part of the world. It's more the distinction between those who look sufficiently different.

When you're in small towns and villages, in shops, they look and they don't quite understand: "Do I really get on with this person?" So more work needs to be done to try to understand the rich culture of these countries, the great sense of solidarity and of family, and to build up a relationship. But again, I don't live there full-time. I live in New York, and I go home to my personal family home in the west of Ireland as much as I can, but for two or three days, or to Dublin for my grandchildren, for two or three days. So maybe I miss a little. But if that's true, I would be worried about it.

RFE/RL: There's a big debate in Europe about the borders of Europe, about where the eastern boundary should stop. Where is Ireland on this debate? Which countries should be included, and which shouldn't?

Robinson: The Irish government has been supportive of a Europe that extends certainly to encompass, obviously, in January, Bulgaria and Romania, but also in favor of Turkish membership in Europe. I'm not sure that I know what the Irish government's policy is towards other potential members in the future.

RFE/RL: What do you think personally?

Robinson: I think that if countries can fulfill the broad requirements of democratic rule of law, personal freedoms, etc., and aspire to become members of the European Union, then it is both Europe's responsibility and opportunity, I may say, to welcome these countries in the future.
It does seem to me to be a total overreaction of a very
racist sort to require schools in Russia to identify Georgian children
by their surnames and to take note of them in order to see whether
their parents are legal or not.

I've just come from Georgia, from Tbilisi, and that's a country that's extremely worried about its northern neighbor, as they call the Russian Federation. They feel very bullied at the moment. They feel an overreaction to some spies being caught red-handed. I have to say, it does seem to me to be a total overreaction of a very racist sort to require schools in Russia to identify Georgian children by their surnames and to take note of them in order to see whether their parents are legal or not, to close businesses, including an architectural firm, because the owner is Georgian.

So what the Georgian leadership are saying to me was: "We feel an attraction toward Europe and its culture. We want to join NATO. We know it's long-term. We know we won't join the EU tomorrow. We're not ready." But when Georgia is ready, I personally believe it would be in Europe's interest, as well as in Georgia's, to be able to expand.

Ireland's Success Story

RFE/RL: Irish membership in the European Union is widely know as a very successful story. Why do you think it has been so successful for Ireland?

Robinson: I must say, when I think back, I was very much involved in the discussion in 1970, '71, '72 about whether Ireland should become a member of the European Union. Some of my closest friends were on the other side. I wanted Ireland to become a member. They said: "Look, we had to struggle for our freedom. We're a small country on the periphery of Europe. We now have sovereignty. Are we going to give it all up? Are we going to become a homogenized small country with no capacity to influence?"

And I must say that I felt the opposite. I felt Europe can give space for smaller countries to have quite a lot of influence, both in the institutions and in the six-month presidency, and in the diversity of culture. I do believe that membership in the European Union greatly strengthened Irish identity. We found ourselves more because we were freed from the big neighbor Britain. We no longer totally identified our policies in the context of reaction to, or side by side with, Britain. We were able to negotiate as one of a number of countries. So that was very good from an Irish point of view.

I believe that the same is true of the 10 new countries that have joined, that they will find that over a period it will strengthen their own identity, because they are sharing that sense of identity with more countries. You can gain more sovereignty by pooling a little bit of your sovereignty, which is what we're all doing, and at the same time asserting your culture. Schoolchildren learn about a Europe of 25 countries now; it will be 27 countries. They learn a little bit about each country; they're children. But they feel an identity with these countries, so these countries have a stronger place in sharing their identity.

I think that the real key to Ireland's economic success -- if I may paraphrase the famous phrase of [U.S.] President [Bill] Clinton, who said, "It's the economy, stupid" -- I really think it's education, education, education, stupid! We put a lot of emphasis on that, and we were English-speaking from the beginning, so that helped, with our Irish language as a second, special language.

RFE/RL: If we can return to the Human Rights Council, to pick up on what you said about human rights leadership needed at the UN, to what extent do you think it's a problem that the United States is not on the council? What are your thoughts on that?

Robinson: I was very disappointed that the United States didn't stand for election, and therefore couldn't be on the current Human Rights Council. That doesn't help the council, that the most powerful country didn't stand for election. I would very much welcome it if the United States would stand for election in the future and would become a member, and be elected through the process.

It's a process where you need 90 positive votes in the General Assembly, and that means that some of the worst human rights perpetrators did not get through this time. They stood, but they did not get elected. Some countries with difficult human rights records did get elected, but we're not talking about a Human Rights Council of perfection. Every country has to learn, and indeed the United States is not at the moment fulfilling its commitments under all of the human rights instruments, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is in clear breach of some of the aspects of that in its attitude on Guantanamo Bay, torture, etc.

But it is a strong country with a strong democratic base of checks and balances. So I sincerely hope for the successful strengthening of the Human Rights Council as it goes forward, that the United States will stand next time, and will be elected.

Remembering A Famine

RFE/RL: If I could get back to Ireland and its history -- Ireland is a big example for Ukraine, my country, in the sense of how it overcame its history. There are many parallels, and one of them is the great famine that happened in the 19th century in Ireland, and which happened on a bigger scale in the 1930s in Ukraine. According to some analysis, the influence of the famine in Ireland is still being felt now. How do you think it has influenced the country? And in Ukraine, should they put more emphasis into understanding that these events are not overcome so easily?

Robinson: I think that's a very good question, because I think that memory and understanding trauma, and understanding the grief of the past that is still there in the present, is really very important. During my seven years as president, we commemorated in a very holistic, complete way the three years of the terrible famine, because it was the 150th anniversary. And every school had projects; every community remembered. I unveiled so many different monuments, in this country, in Canada, in the United States, Australia, because the memory of that was so important.

I even had an opportunity to acknowledge something that I think very much speaks to your question, even though it does so indirectly. The potato famine in Ireland began in 1845, when the stable crop for the poorest families failed. This was what they fed their families. They grew other crops to pay the rent; they still had to pay the rent, and they didn't have enough food.

Then, in 1846, the second year, it was worse, and in 1847, it was desperate. Those that were strong enough emigrated; some of them died on the ships, the coffin ships, and some reached foreign shores. In the spring of 1847, there was a meeting in [the U.S. state of] Oklahoma of the Choctaw Indian tribe, who were marking the sad 10th anniversary of when they were driven from their tribal lands. And we don't know how they heard about an island far away where people were starving. They learned that it was because the stable crop had failed for the third year, and this they understood.

The Choctaw people collected $173, and sent it for the relief of Irish famine victims, and we know what happened because the English Victorians who were in charge in Ireland recorded the money that came in, and they recorded how it went out to help people. During that period of the 150th anniversary, I went to Oklahoma as president of Ireland, I met with the Choctaw people, and I thanked them publicly on behalf of the people of Ireland. I am now an honorary chieftain of the Choctaw people; I think I'm the only woman to be!

But the point was, just as we remember the harsh, bad things in history, the wars lost, the grievances, the pogroms -- the terrible things -- we remember the generous initiatives. And it's good for our modern world. It's not why you do a humanitarian act, but it's about memory, which is what you were talking about. So it is important, in the modern Ukraine, that there are opportunities to solemnly remember on certain dates, at certain times, to let it be spoken about, not bottled up, but spoken about, and remembered, and honored, and somehow healed.

RFE/RL: Unfortunately, the word about the Ukrainian famine couldn't reach America, because it couldn't reach out of the USSR. So it was a bit of a different story. And that crime went unpunished, and in the view of many historians, that traumatized the whole society until this very day. That's why I asked why the famine from 150 years ago is still being felt.

Robinson: Then I would say there is good need to try to open up what has been bottled up, and what people are trying to forget, and try [for example] through public hearings to find some way of solemnly marking and commemorating, because it does carry on, and it does leave its mark. And healing comes from being listened to as victims. If it's somebody who says, "My grandmother died of hunger, and nobody cared," to even say that in some public forum is healing.

Bilingualism A European Strength

RFE/RL: Another parallel in our histories is the existence of two languages in the country. How do you think this situation will evolve in Ireland, and is there any lesson that Ukrainians could draw from it?

Robinson: I think again it's quite interesting, because unfortunately the Irish language got the wrong kind of attention.... It had been earlier suppressed by the colonial power. In 1922, Ireland became a free state, and then in 1937, it became obligatory to learn it in school, in a way that was not well taught, and it wasn't much used anywhere else. So, of course, students didn't feel that they liked it very much. And this was a big mistake, actually. But these mistakes happen.

Now, in a more prosperous Ireland, the good news from my point of view is that there are more schools that teach all subjects through Irish than ever before. And many of them are in poorer communities of working-class people who want their children to have the heritage of learning through Irish. The general perception is that these are the best schools, because the teachers are totally motivated, the parents are totally motivated, the music is wonderful, the culture....

For example, my grandchild is going to a preschool in Irish, and he will go to a school [in Irish], because my daughter says, "I'd like my son to have the best." There are wonderful Irish poets writing in Gaelic. Now, in the political world, almost all politicians speak good Irish, because it would be politically not good for them not to. So it's taking its place academically. It will never become the first language spoken, because English is so dominant. But most countries now have two, three, maybe four languages.

I lived in Switzerland for five years; all the children there know three official languages, and they all know English. So a minimum of four languages. I think it's part of the European strength that we know these languages. I'm now based in the United States, where part of the population speaks Spanish, but there is no kind of link; most of the non-Spanish speakers speak no other language but English.

Of course, the English they speak -- if I may be funny for a moment -- it's a question of being divided by a common language. I get into a taxi, and I say I want to go somewhere, and he says, "Wha?" And I say it again, and then I say to him to open the boot, and he says, "Wha?" because that's what we call the trunk, and all these interesting differences. But language is important, and I'm very glad that the modern Ireland is beginning to really value it again. But it took a lot of time. And it's easier when a country is more prosperous.

Voices Of Forum 2000

Voices Of Forum 2000

A session of Forum 2000 in Prague on October 9, 2006 (RFE/RL)

'DILEMMAS OF GLOBAL COEXISTENCE.' RFE/RL has a close relationship with Forum 2000, an important global conference of ideas and initiatives. On October 9-10, 2006, RFE/RL sat down with several Forum 2000 participants to find out more about their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing the modern world.

Nino Burdjanadze | Georgia needs support in row with Moscow

Alyaksandr Milinkevich | Belarusians must combat 'total fear'

Mary Robinson | EU strengthens new members' identity, influence

Bronislaw Geremek | Ukraine will 'find its path'

Vaira Vike-Freiberga | 'Nervousness in the air'

Elie Wiesel | 'Shouting' to make a difference

Kanan Makiya | 'Overthrowing Hussein was right'

Jacques Rupnik | 'We cannot afford a pause' in EU enlargement

Forum 2000 head Oldrich Cerny | "Is the era of multiculturalism over?"

An archive of RFE/RL's interviews with newsmakers and other leading figures from across our broadcast region.