Leading American Jewish groups and neo-conservative supporters of former President George W. Bush have assailed Mrs. Robinson for her role in the 2001 United Nations sponsored conference on racism held in Durban, South Africa. At that conference, many Arab countries and NGOs tried to insert language equating Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with racism. Mrs. Robinson, who left the Irish presidency early during her second term in 1997 to take up the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, insured that no such language made it into the conference’s final document, but her continual highlighting of the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and her forthright condemnation of the Bush administration’s pre-emptive war policy in Iraq has garnered her considerable ire.
Ever the tough global activist, seasoned international lawyer, and ivy league university lecturer, Robinson vigorously defends her actions in Durban and her stances on international issues and dismisses the criticisms surrounding President Obama’s selection of her for the award.
“I’m not at all defensive,” said Mrs. Robinson in a telephone interview this week while traveling in Palo Alto, California before coming to Washington to accept the award.
“They can sling their arrows at me,” she said of the groups opposed to her selection.
“These are distorted representations and an unjust version of the events and do not at all represent the wide range of views from Jewish or other human rights advocates of my work,” she added.
In New York, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issued statements calling for President Obama to rethink his awarding the medal to Mrs. Robinson.
“In addition to Robinson’s dishonorable role in the Durban debacle, her tenure on the UNHRC was deeply flawed, and her conduct marred by extreme, one-sided anti-Israel sentiment,” AIPAC noted in its statement. They accused Mrs. Robinson of allowing “Zionism=Racism” in the final text of the conference document.
Not so, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California. In a telephone interview, Rabbi Cooper, who attended the Durban conference, admitted that Mrs. Robinson did thwart efforts by Arab countries and groups to insert such text. Still, he maintains, Mrs. Robinson is not a good candidate for the Medal of Freedom because of her poor management of the conference’s organization and outcome.
“It was toxic, and we in the human rights community are still paying the price for how Mary Robinson handled that conference which should have been an important moment in the human rights movement,” he said. He accused her of allowing anti Israeli extremists of hijacking the meeting. At the time, Israel and the United States stood up and withdrew from because of a barrage of attacks by Arab representatives within the conference and those involved in the NGO’s meeting on the periphery in Durban.
“I do not believe Mary Robinson is an anti-Semite, and I guess this is mostly about her being the first female president of Ireland, but I do not think she is deserving of our nation’s highest award,” said Rabbi Cooper.
The White House is standing by its decision to deliver the medal, established by President Harry Truman in 1945.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told the Echo: “Mary Robinson was the first female president of Ireland whom we are honoring as a prominent crusader for women’s rights in Ireland and around the world. She has dedicated her career to human rights and working to improve an imperfect world. As with any public figure, we don’t necessarily agree with every statement she has ever made, but it’s clear that she has been an agent of change and a fighter for good.”
In addition to castigation of her from some Jewish groups (there were also seven Jewish organization who wrote to President Obama this week defending Mrs. Robinson) and conservatives, such as former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, characterized her as “anti-American.”
Mrs. Robinson is determined not to let such criticism mar the moment for her as she receives the award given for the first time to an Irish national at the White House.
“Anyone who’s read the Durban final document knows there is no anti-Semitism contained in it, but there are those who will want to believe in a myth,” she said.
Mary Robinson was born in 1944 in Ballina, Co Mayo. She was an academic stand out early in law school at Trinity College, King’s Inns Dublin and at Harvard Law School. Her career included holding a prestigious chair as law professor, 20 years in the Seanad, and in 1990 she became the first woman to be President of Ireland.
The Bush administration opposed her allowing her to continue as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in part for her condemnation of the Guantanamo detention center, the use of death penalty in the US, and for allowing a discussion of possible reparations to be paid by the US for those whose ancestors were slaves. She left the post in 2002 and went on to be a founding member of The Elders along with her fellow Medal of Freedom recipients Desmond Tutu and Muhammad Yunus.
She is married to Nicholas Robinson and they have three children and three grandchildren. She is a co-founder and former Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders and Vice President of the Club of Madrid. She is chair of the GAVI Alliance Board. She is Honorary President of Oxfam International, and Patron of the International Community of Women Living with AIDS (ICW). She is President of the International Commission of Jurists.
“I am dedicating this award to all the human rights workers around the world,” said Robinson. Ever ready to take on an issue directly, she leaves in a few weeks with several of her fellow Elders to explore human rights issues in: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.