Mary Robinson, Ireland’s former president and the UN high commissioner for human rights since 1997, has announced that she will step down when her term ends in September. A human rights lawyer, she has said she plans to continue to work for human rights but without the "constraints" imposed by the United Nations.
For most of her tenure, Robinson has tried to steer a difficult course that both promotes human rights around the world and respects the sovereignty of nations. Perhaps not surprisingly, along the way she has earned criticism from governments as well as human rights organizations.
In the end, the power players of global Realpolitik have made Robinson’s position personally untenable. Indeed, it’s fine to point out human rights abuses of other countries, but stay away from mine, they seem to say. In Robinson’s case, Russian leaders in particular were angered by her criticism of that nation’s activities in Chechnya. Her work was further complicated by resistance to her efforts in Tibet, East Timor, and the Middle East.
"When you stand up to large countries, when you are an awkward, open, critical voice, you also build up resistances," she said in announcing her intention to leave.
Robinson’s legacy won’t likely be one of dramatic accomplishments on specific human rights cases. Rather, what she did was raise the profile of the high commissioner position within the international community. It is a strong, important legacy, one that her successor must toil as tirelessly as she has done to build upon. In a world beset by continuing affronts to basic human rights, nothing less is acceptable.