Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice

  • Mary Robinson
  • Walker & Company
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jennifer L. Windsor
  • April 17, 2013

An autobiography on the highs and lows of the extraordinary career of Irish politician and diplomat Mary Robinson

During the five years she served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson made 115 trips to almost 80 countries in order “to amplify the voices of victims.” In those countries as well as in her native Ireland, Robinson has dedicated most of her adult life to not only “giving voice,” but also taking action to assist those less fortunate than herself. In her recently released memoir, Everybody Matters, Robinson chronicles her remarkable career as barrister, professor, politician and international advocate for human rights.

Born in 1944 in Ballina, a town of 6,000 in north County Mayo, she was from an Irish-Catholic family who by her own description was “privileged.” Growing up in a still-insular Ireland in which class, gender and religious divisions ran deep, then-Mary Bourke began early on to question “the seeming unfairness of the chance of birth.” According to her own account, there was no single “moment of a break with the past,” but rather it was a cumulative set of experiences, including exposure to her father’s medical practice, her relationships with several nuns — including her aunt in India — and formative years in Paris and at Harvard that motivated her to choose a life where she could make a difference. 

As the third of five children (and the only girl), Robinson was “already, annoyingly, addressing basic issues of equality” in arguing for equal treatment within the family. Similar light-hearted comments about herself are sprinkled throughout the book, whether mocking her lack of prowess in rowing and acting or forgetting how to push an elevator button after years in high office. Overall, the book is refreshingly modest and understated, with frank admissions of error and effusive praise for the many friends and colleagues who supported and advised her through the years. Her husband, Nick Robinson, tops the list of those who made her meteoric career possible; he is portrayed in the book as almost saintly, willing to sideline his own career to support hers and to focus on their three children. 

Her political career began at the age of 25, when she was elected to the Irish Senate. As a senator and an active barrister, Bourke (turned Robinson) began to challenge some of the inequities that characterized Ireland at the time, including the myriad laws discriminating against women. One of her first attempts was to introduce a bill to repeal the law making it illegal to purchase contraceptives. The bill was highly controversial and triggered a flood of hate mail. The Senate leadership did not allow it to be considered. 

When the head of the Labour Party asked her to run in the upcoming presidential election, Robinson was genuinely surprised; she (and many others) doubted that she could win. Helped by the disarray of the opposing parties, and a well-run campaign, Robinson was elected the first female president of Ireland in November 1990. The president was then considered to be mainly a ceremonial post. Robinson transformed the office, elevating its status and broadening its scope and outreach through meetings with the Dalai Lama, the Queen of England, and travels to Northern Ireland, Somalia, South Africa and Rwanda. 

As the end of her seven-year term approached, Robinson sought new challenges. She found all the struggles she could want and more in the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Created in 1993, the Office of the High Commissioner was underfunded, understaffed and hampered by internal rivalries. Unlike other autonomous U.N. agencies, the High Commissioner did not have the authority to manage and choose staff without the approval of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which was dominated by authoritarian states bent on limiting the Office’s effectiveness.

Robinson soon realized that the goal set out for her by Secretary General Kofi Annan — to make human rights “a core purpose” of the United Nations — was not easily achieved. At that time, the role of the High Commissioner was primarily to bear witness and advocate for those whose human rights had been violated. While Robinson’s speaking out did not translate into behavioral change of Rwanda in the Congo, or Russia in Chechnya, or NATO in the Balkans, it did make governments uncomfortable and made victims feel that their stories were being heard. 

The most controversial aspect of her tenure as High Commissioner, and perhaps her entire career, was her role as Secretary General of the U.N. World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001. The Durban conference aimed at focusing attention on the existence of racism, to remedy past injustices and prevent future violations. Preparations for Durban were on track until the last regional preparatory meeting, held in Tehran, Iran, at the beginning of 2001. The Iranian government inserted incendiary language into the draft declaration stating that the “Zionist movement … is based on race superiority.” The language was reminiscent of past U.N. resolutions against Israel stating “Zionism equals racism” and raised intense concerns. 

Because the language was bracketed, meaning that all the members had not agreed to it, Robinson assumed that everyone would know that it “had no validity” and would be removed. It was indeed eventually taken out, but not until after the United States and Israel had withdrawn their delegations from Durban, and the EU had threatened to do the same. Robinson admits that she underestimated the “hurt and anxiety words in a document would cause.” In response to the criticism of Congressman Tom Lantos and others that she lacked “effective leadership,” Robinson defends herself, noting that she was “powerless” to prevail upon member-states to remove the language and that her critics “did not fully comprehend the bureaucratic and formalistic ways” of the U.N. She repeatedly expresses her disappointment that Annan did not renew her mandate as U.N. High Commissioner, suggesting some remaining bitterness about Durban and its aftermath. 

Those not familiar with Irish politics or the machinations of the U.N. and human rights may find the book too detailed in parts, but it is worth the read. Everyone Matters provides a relatively unvarnished (although carefully worded) self-account of the highs and lows of the extraordinary career of Mary Robinson. We are all looking forward to reading about her continued achievements in the next edition.

Jennifer L. Windsor is Associate Dean for Programs at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She served as Executive Director of Freedom House from 2001-2010. 

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