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NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Former U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson

» More about this interview

MARIA HINOJOSA: Welcome to Now's audio podcast. I'm Maria Hinojosa, the senior correspondent of "Now." And it's a great pleasure to welcome you listeners to our premier show. And I wanna give a special welcome to the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, who is our guest on this premier podcast. She was the first woman president of Ireland, and then served as U.N. high commissioner for human rights until the year 2002. Thank you for joining me. And I have to ask you, is it President? Is it commissioner? Which do you prefer?

MARY ROBINSON: Most people now just call me Mary Robinson. Life simplifies. And (CHUCKLE) I like it like that. (CHUCKLE)

HINOJOSA: Okay. I want to start off actually on a very serious note. I wanted to get your reaction to some new information in the news. President Bush for the first time has now acknowledged that the CIA used secret prisons located outside of the United States and that these secret prisons housed top suspects captured in the war on terror. What's your reaction to this? And what do you think the international reaction to it might be?

ROBINSON: Well curiously, I'm here in Washington taking part in a distinguished panel established by a body based out of Geneva called The International Commission of Jurists. And of course we were aware that the President was going to make the statement he made. And we've been following very closely.

And the experts who came to talk to us this morning spoke about secret places of detention. So in fact it was good that the President at least admitted that these have existed.

HINOJOSA: Where does this put the United States in the international scenario?

ROBINSON: Frankly everybody knew there were these secret places of detention. That was one of the real concerns, including the fact that the International Commission of The Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, couldn't get access to some of these people.

HINOJOSA: So five years after September 11th, Osama bin Laden is still out there. President Bush says that these people who are being held in these secret overseas prisons are, quote, "In our custody so they can't murder our own people." And there might be many Americans who hear the President say that, and they might think, "Great. Keep them captured. Keep them out of our country. Keep them as far away as you possibly can." And when you hear that, Mary Robinson, you think?

ROBINSON: Well first of all I would be the first to acknowledge that there is a serious problem. There are serious acts of terrorism. And it's possible to create more terror.

But something very worrying has happened since the terrible attacks in this country of 9-11. And that is that the United States, which was the leader and the moral country on human rights, has dipped its standards. And that is partly why the United States is getting such criticism, and is in a way hard to defend on its human rights record at the moment.

I don't say that with any pleasure. I feel very home in the United States. I studied law here in Harvard Law School. But when I was invited to join this panel, I knew that it was my responsibility, with a number of other eminent jurists, to come here and hold public hearings so the people can kind of assess the situation.

One of the witnesses that we heard today was Rear Admiral John Hudson, a former judge advocate general of the Navy. And he was unequivocal that torture does not help, that evidence based on torture is not reliable. We heard from General James Cullen who is a retired U.S. Army Judge advocate general. And they again, the pride with which they upheld the standards the Army stood for, and the fact that the United States was a lead against torture, and it was just good for me to hear these voices on these issues today.

HINOJOSA: But how do you do both? How do you respect human rights internationally and, at the same time, combat an enemy that is so illusive, that is so ever-present, in so many ways and yet, at the same time, is nowhere? What is the answer?

ROBINSON: The reality is that the United States is grappling for the first time with a terrible series of acts of terrorism that took place almost five years ago on the 11th of September of 2001. I, at that time, was serving as U.N. high commissioner for human rights. I remember coming to the United States, to New York, to ground zero, meeting some of the brave families, meeting the FEMA courageous workers and the many volunteers who turned out.

And if you remember, the world was never more united than immediately after 9-11. Those acts were condemned everywhere. They were condemned by Muslim countries. They were condemned internationally.

And it was apparently, subsequently, that the United States went into Afghanistan and when the Taliban refused to surrender Osama bin Laden and his colleagues. All of that was understandable, and the world was there.

But somehow because of the opening of Guantanamo Bay, what's wrong with Guantanamo Bay? It infringes the Geneva Conventions. Now after five years giving leadership in the United Nations on human rights, I just know how important that is. John McCain, Senator John McCain knows how important that is, because he was a prisoner of war.

We must uphold our standards. We can address these issues. The way we do it is by the democracies of the world combining better, sharing better intelligence, tracking the money, tracking the networks. These are criminals, and they are people that must be brought to justice.

Because I'm concerned about human rights standards does not mean that I or other human rights people are soft on terrorism. I know, because I've traveled to countries of conflict and terrorism, the awful impact of a market square where you see bits of bodies. There's nothing that ever takes that out of your mind.

HINOJOSA: In fact when you were younger, you remember what was happening in your own country. There were the bombings, explosions, a war. There were many people who were in a state of shock and trauma. So you can understand, Mary Robinson, people who may have lost someone on September 11th, who is still in that state of shock and just says "I know that perhaps my civil liberties may be in danger but, my God, I don't want anyone else to suffer what I have suffered."

ROBINSON: Yes. In fact, we're going to hear three organizations who are working with the victims of 9-11. And I think it's good that we hear three different groups so we're not just hearing one. And we will be very interested to hear what they say.

It's certainly important for me that I had the opportunity during a very significant part of my life to see how the conflict in Northern Ireland impacted. It impacted on the Republic of Ireland, where I was. It impacted very significantly on Britain.

And it led to a British expertise on how to tackle terrorism. And I think we could look to that expertise now, and as having important lessons. It's not that the United Kingdom is doing everything right. But they are approaching everything with a lot of respect for the rule of law. And it's not easy. Some of these issues are quite difficult.

But it has led to very successful bringing to justice, very successful surveillance that found out about the most recent, what could have been a very potent attack. It wasn't holding people in a Guantanamo Bay-like situation and torturing them that brought about the knowledge that there was a threat on airplanes. And it was surveyance. It was the traditional police work. It was good inter-communications between countries, between Pakistan and Britain.

So it's not the case that if we uphold our human rights standards we put people more at risk. I actually believe that the war in Iraq and some other things have put people more at risk. It has actually oh, brought about a situation where there's such sense of humiliation and hatred and it's really very worrying.

HINOJOSA: I wonder your reaction to some things that have been said recently. President Bush, this week, saying that "History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake." That was his quote. And then he went on to compare bin Laden to Lenin and to Hitler. And last week, Secretary Rumsfeld saying essentially that those who are critical of the war in Iraq are like Nazi appeasers. When you hear those statements, what kind of reaction do you think that will elicit from our European partners? Are they gonna come to our come closer, or is this gonna drive them away?

ROBINSON: I don't think there will be a great credibility or respect for this approach. I think it's seen, frankly, as being more related to the upcoming mid-term elections. And a mean time in Reagan (CHUCKLE) politics, as somebody said to me.

I say that because this is really kind of a rhetoric of a political nature that isn't grounded either in good history or, I believe, in really a good approach to what we're about. What we need at the moment is to (SIGH) have a lot of attention to where we need to open up discussions. And the Middle East is clearly one of the real areas of difficulty.

I have heard very responsible people who know that situation very well say it would be important to try to really have a serious discussion with Hamas. Yes, Hamas has been responsible for violent acts against civilians which cannot be condoned. But Hamas is now in a government of the Palestinian authority. And it has that responsibility. There are indications that it wants to exercise that responsibility.

In the aftermath of a very troubling situation of huge devastation in Lebanon and, I would unequivocally say, unacceptable and to be condemned violence by Hezbollah against the civilian population, Israeli population, northern Israel, there is a sense of a tentative ceasefire. But a lack of real security there. It's absolutely urgent to address that.

This doesn't help to start labeling with historic emotional labels that have nothing to do with the current situation. It's much better to realize that we have different issues to deal with. And when I was in New York after those terrible attacks, and I realized the trauma, I heard it all around me having lived in Ireland, having seen the trauma in Northern Ireland, the attacks in Britain European countries became used to the prospect of acts of terrorism, terrible as they were. Spain, France, et cetera, all of these countries had a sort of pattern of it.

For the United States, it was more unique. And therefore, the reaction, understandably, was deeper and more traumatized. And I really appreciate that. And I appreciate it, you know, with a warmth and understanding, especially for the victims and their families, but really for people generally.

But I believe it was a fundamental mistake to characterize all of what happened as a war on terrorism, rather than those acts of attacks I the United States being crimes against humanity, which had to be countered, if necessary, with war. So the war in Afghanistan was legitimized by the fact that the Taliban would not hand over Osama bin Laden.

The war on Iraq, I do not believe, has that justification. It has stirred up a whole range of problems within Iraq itself, within the region. And we need to kind of deal with each of these issues in a very separate way. So that kind of world wide characterization, as if it's all the same thing, is defeating our ability to make people more secure. There needs to be a broader, more open debate.

Not a kind of narrow, "you're either with us or against us. If you're against us, you're an appeaser. Even if you want to try and find other solutions you're not sort of somehow you're appeasing Hitler." This is this is very sad rhetorical language at this point in time. And I can only think it's linked to trying to muddy the ground to fight an election.

HINOJOSA: So five years after September 11th, what did, in fact, happen with that good will of the world, and certainly of Europeans towards the United States? What happened to that good will? And can it be brought back?

ROBINSON: I think just on the fifth anniversary of 9-11, it's important that we reflect back at how widespread that good will was. I was very conscious of it because I kind of had a global mandate at the time.

I was very struck by the many countries that expressed sympathy and appreciation. Many countries in North Africa, in Asia, in South Asia. And there really was no one who wasn't shocked and dismayed and appalled by those acts of terrorism.

And if we had gone what I call "the criminal route," and characterized them as crimes against humanity, we could have retained that sense of a togetherness. And not have secret detention centers, not having the terrible images of Abu Ghraib, the damage that has done by that. I'm so conscious of, it's why I'm here in the United States, willing to talk to people, willing to reach out and say, "Let's encourage a debate where the United States regains its leadership."

You cannot have images of Abu Ghraib and then talk about bringing freedom and democracy to the world. And that's the message, really, I think, on the fifth anniversary of 9-11, a plea to the United States. Call a big conference and let's have some kind of reassertion of standards. It's just so badly needed.

HINOJOSA: You have been called an outsider. Where you were the high commissioner at the United Nations for human rights, you angered many governments. You publicly called them on the carpet because of their human rights record. Where do you get this ability to just make the direct criticism, call it as you see it?

ROBINSON: I'm not sure that I would actually accept that characterization. I did stand up to governments and stood up a couple of times to bullies, in that sense. But I conveyed to countries, even countries with very bad or weak human rights records, but I was interested in the populations of those countries, the governments don't own human rights, they belong to people.

And so, for example, I made seven working visits to China. And when I finished my term, the Vice Premier at the time Vice Premier Chin Chee Chen (PH) hosted a dinner and said to me, "You have been very straight with us, and we've learned a lot from you."

And that's what human rights is to me. It's really trying to be diplomatic, if that helps, to be nuanced. I had been president of my country for seven years. I was a very (CHUCKLE) diplomatic person.

But also, you have to stand up. And the hardest year I had was my very last year. Because I had to stand up very publicly to what was happening in the United States. I knew that it was important to do it because when I would talk to, for example, ministers in Asian countries, or in Egypt and some countries, and I would say, "You mustn't use your emergency legislation to clamp down on freedom of the press or call political opposition individuals terrorists and imprison them, et cetera, in the way that you wouldn't have done before 9-11."

And they would say to me, "But standards have changed. Look at what's happening in the States." So the United States has both the burden and also the responsibility, in a positive way, of giving that leadership.

HINOJOSA: So in that moment Mary Robinson, when you are the high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations, you make a decision that you are going to take on the United States. You are going to criticize them. You had to I mean how do you make that decision? I mean did you—


HINOJOSA: — Sit there and say, "Okay, this is it. Okay, I'm gonna do this, I'm moving forward, they let the chips fall where they may?"

ROBINSON: No, it was a very measured approach, very much in consultation not only with my internal colleagues in the office, but also, with the human rights defenders that the U.N. calls upon, the special rappateurs (PH) and that. And what was happening was they were feeding back to me how bad the situation was.

And the rapporteurs on torture. extrajudicial killing, on various other areas, were saying, "The trouble is what we're hearing is that the United States has these secret places of detention in Afghanistan now where people are being tortured, where people are being held." And we all knew that Guantanamo Bay was not complying with the Geneva Conventions. And it was extremely important to raise these issues.

What I felt at the time, I have to say, was quite lonely. I really was dismayed at the lack of a broad debate in Congress. I'm glad to say that one of the things I really noted is the way in which the checks and balances in this country have begun to reassert themselves. The judgments of the Supreme Court, notably the Hanton judgment recently.

And these are welcomed internationally. I cannot tell you how welcomed they are. And the voices, the indepen— good voices in Congress, including (CHUCKLE) the initiative of Senator McCain that is all noted, just as the bad (CHUCKLE) points are noted.

The trouble is that the United States is under a very close scrutiny because the United States is the standard bearer. And if it doesn't uphold those standards, they dip. And we all suffer.

HINOJOSA: And so were there repercussions for you at the United Nations when you criticized the United States on their record on human rights? (NOISE)

ROBINSON: Well I certainly didn't endear myself to the administration. And they made it really clear that and they would not favor me continuing. I had continued for one year longer than my first term.

And then, when the terrible attacks took place and the pressure mounted, and I had this dismay expressed by human rights defenders, human rights groups internationally, I felt I can't leave now. So I did indicate that if the Secretary General wished me to stay on, I would be prepared to stay on. And the message I got back was that this would not be acceptable to the United States.

HINOJOSA: And finally, as a woman, the first woman president of your country, you're a mother, you're a grandmother. You talked about it being lonely sometimes. At that moment, when it is lonely for you, Mary Robinson, what do you do? (CHUCKLE)

ROBINSON: Well, I have great family support, not least a long suffering husband who, in his time, was a political cartoonist. So he can make me laugh when I feel (LAUGHTER) and we do.

HINOJOSA: That always helps.

ROBINSON: We do enjoy the funny moments. But also, I'm a firm believer that this is a century of more women's voices. And I think it will help. It's not that women are necessarily better than men. That's not the point.

But women exercising leadership do it in a different way, do it in a more listening, enabling, networking, problem solving way. And we need more women's voices being recognized as having an incredible role to play in peace and reconciliation. With a number of colleagues, we've recently formed a women leaders inter-cultural forum, which will be launched at Columbia University in mid-September in later on this month.

And it's kind of a unique way of saying that women are going to discuss issues of human security inter-culturally, inter-regionally, and also, between the generations. Because my daughter has different views on some things, particularly even on gender issues, than I do. And we have to really listen. But we want to bring our ideas into wider fora which are mainly dominated by men.

And not just have one woman keynote speaker, Mary Robinson making an address, or one you know, somebody else making an address, and then everybody else saying, "Well, it's good we had one woman at least." We want to have more variety of different voices from different perspectives, but all actually making it clear that women this century are determined to exercise more leadership. And that humanity needs it very badly.

HINOJOSA: I want to thank the former president of Ireland, and former U.N. High commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, for joining us on our "Now" podcast. And thanks to our listeners. I'll see you on the T.V. set on "Now." I'm Maria Hinojosa. Thank you so much, Mary Robinson.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

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