Former Irish pres. talks at Hanover Inn

by Vera Bergengruen | 10/8/07 2:19am

Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson arrived at the Hanover Inn on Sunday afternoon ready to answer the questions of 20 lucky students. The first female president of Ireland, Robinson served from 1990-1997 and is one of the three 2007-2008 Montgomery Fellows.

At the luncheon, students' questions ranged from her personal background to her politics.

After her time as president, Robinson served as UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. She was asked what she thought about the typical criticism of the UN as being a dysfunctional organization.

Robinson responded with a quote from Winston Churchill: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others."

She elaborated that, in her mind, there are two UNs: one that is embodied by the stereotype of a disorganized, inefficient organization, while the other is indispensable to maintaining the international order.

"Imagine," she said. "Without the UN, planes couldn't fly, there would be no law of the seas, you name it!"

As president of Ireland, Robinson's position was largely ceremonial, but she has continued to use her political influence and helped found the group known as The Elders with Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, among others. The Elders is an international group of public figures who strive to use their experience to help generate possible solutions to global problems, such as climate change, HIV/AIDS and poverty.

Robinson explained that she does not support ranking the "worst countries" in terms of human rights because the status of human rights in these countries is constantly in flux. While she said the century had begun very well for human rights, Robinson stated that human rights violations were rapidly increasing in the post-9/11 world, particularly in the United States.

Robinson urged students to become more involved in protecting human rights, asserting that becoming involved was now easier than ever before because of the ease of communication.

"Human rights are our birthright; we have to reclaim and re-center them," she said.

Asked by one of several Women's Studies majors present at the luncheon to comment about her work promoting women's rights, Robinson spoke about her controversial efforts to increase the availability of contraceptives in a staunchly Catholic Ireland despite being denounced from pulpits across the country.

"In my Harvard Law arrogance, I thought it was a very simple thing!" she said, commenting on her surprise at the difficulties she encountered.

Robinson also described her own background. The daughter of two physicians, she said that despite being a woman and the only member of her family to become involved in politics, she never felt discouraged.

"My parents conveyed to me early on that everything was a possibility, that I could do anything I wanted," she said. "You never know how you're going to end up " I didn't."

When asked how she became involved in human rights, Robinson replied with a wry smile.

"In my family I grew up as the only girl wedged between four brothers " of course I came to be interested in human rights!" she said.

Robinson's Montgomery Fellow Lecture, free and open to all students, will be on Oct. 9 in Moore Theater.