Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland who went onto become the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner from 1997-2002, has been one of the most outstanding campaigners for a fairer world over the past decade.
And that is why President Barack Obama has included Ms Robinson on this year’s list of recipients of the highest honour a President can bestow on anyone, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But not everyone is happy about Robinson being on the list — in particular the hard line elements of the pro Israel lobby in the US that abhor Robinson’s support for the rights of Palestinians and her chairmanship of the controversial 2001 UN Conference on Racism in Durban.
Robinson has been active in prompting human rights and poverty reduction through organisations like Oxfam and the International Institute for Environment and Development. It’s hard to think of a more articulate and principled voice in the past ten years on human rights.
Robinson took aim at Australia over its appalling mistreatment of asylum seekers, condemned the Bush Administration’s Guantanamo Bay practices, and the rush to erode fundamental freedoms by governments after 9/11.
As Ian Williams, writing on Salon.com on July 26 2002, put it , “As high commissioner for human rights, [Robinson] brought a sense of urgency to the position, and the authority of a recently retired head of state. It irked the type of U.N. bureaucrats who would much rather file reports of massacres at the bottom of a cabinet than upset governments.”
But Robinson made a fatal error which is now being used against her — she criticised Israel’s inhumanity towards Palestinians, and she allowed the Durban Conference on Racism, from which the US and Israel walked out because they deemed it to be anti-Semitic, to continue.
Robinson toured the Middle East and was frustrated by the bias of US policy on the Middle East observing, “I find it very disheartening that there is not more understanding here of the appalling suffering of the Palestinian population, nor appreciation that this is not going to lead to a secure future.”
“It’s going to lead to greater hatred and desperation, of further suicide bombings,” she said in an interview in July 2002.
Now elements of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington are working on the White House to get Robinson removed from the list of recipients of the Freedom Medal. These are incessant and powerful voices. The America Israel Political Affairs Committee last week accused Robinson of having a “long public record of hostility and one-sided bias against the Jewish state.”
Writing in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post on August 4, Gil and Tevi Tory, well known policy players in the US, called Robinson “a symbol of Western weakness and appeasement of anti-Semitism.” And the influential liberal magazine The New Republic is lining up with neo-cons against the Obama White House on the issue.
Mary Robinson is winning support from some Israeli human rights groups and legal organizations and the Obama Administration is so far standing firm. Ms Robinson has complained of being bullied by elements of the pro-Israel lobby. She is entitled to, because the barbs directed at her emanate from a viewpoint which has no moral compass. One hopes President Obama also does not succumb to bullying.