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Fighting for human rights - Interview with Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002)
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
April 28, 2010

Read Inside / Out with Mary Robinson

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Mary RobinsonMary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate.

She and six international women leaders visited Zimbabwe to support and strengthen women's role in governance and in the constitutional review process.

Over the past decade Zimbabwe has become a country that many world leaders won't visit. In some cases, certain individuals like Archbishop Desmond Tutu wouldn't be granted entry because of their criticism of the government. How did you reconcile this in making the decision to come to Zimbabwe?

I made a state visit here in 1994 and I have tried to follow what has been happening in Zimbabwe with a lot of concern for that reason. I have a lot of Zimbabwean friends, particularly Nyaradzai who is part of our delegation. For the last two years we have been trying to plan this visit. Fortunately, during the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, the two women Ministers, the Minister for Gender and Community Affairs Olivia Muchena and Sekai Hove-Holland came together and had two meetings with me. I felt that these were two women Ministers who were taking a risk, and I will do anything I can to help. With Nyaradzai already agreeing, and the YWCA here locally being helpful with the other women's groups, I began to contact women. Everybody said yes immediately. It was extraordinary. I think we sense that the Global Political Agreement (GPA) has proclaimed the equality and empowerment of women, and there is a Constitutional review, which is absolutely vital. Listen

I am so proud of the six African women leaders who are with me. They in fact know far more than I do. I am leader because I have a certain status but there is no leader really. We are a group that is a resource for the women in general of Zimbabwe.

What do you hope to achieve through this visit to Zimbabwe?

I think we wanted to highlight the importance of women becoming involved. We want to listen to women who are still excluded and marginalized. Yesterday we went on field visits into the rural areas. I went to Bulawayo, the City of Kings. I was very glad to go. It is important that we went out of Harare, and also met a number of women groups there on economic empowerment and went out into a very rural area where there was an economic empowerment project. Listen

In your meetings with Zimbabwean women so far, what would you say are the most pressing issues faced by women in our society? In what ways do you hope these may be addressed?

There are very pressing issues. Economic issues, land issues . . . that women were targeted as victims with rape and torture and that, as yet, there has not been a basis for true healing and justice in that context. But there are wonderful women's groups, very articulate, very aware, and very knowledgeable and, I think, with the capacity to mobilise. Listen

In your opinion is there a role for men in fulfilling UN Security Council Resolution 1325: increasing the participation of women in efforts to achieve sustainable peace by amplifying their voices and priorities?

Absolutely. There's a role for men in this whole movement for equality. There are men who are supportive; we have been meeting them. It's extremely important; this is not just an issue for women. This is actually, as I keep emphasizing, an issue for the future of Zimbabwe. If supportive men understand how important it is that women have a voice and a place and equality and visibility in the Constitutional Review process that will change the narrative of Zimbabwe outside.

How do you address criticism that International Human Rights Instruments particularly those that are related to women and LGBTI persons are in conflict with African values and culture, and that this is a way of imposing western values on developing nations?

I used to hear that argument quite a lot when I served as High Commissioner for Human Rights. I generally heard it from not very good leaders who didn't want to enshrine and entrench these measures. There's an opportunity now for Zimbabwe to entrench the many international instruments into the Constitution. On the question of values, it is a pity that western countries have put too much emphasis on only one half of human rights for far too long, that is civil and political rights. The other half like the right to food, safe water and education are equally important. Listen

Zimbabwe has ratified several international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet there are numerous incidences of human rights violations. How can we bridge the gap between policy and implementation?

First of all I think is it important to entrench Human Rights Instruments into the Constitution, which will help the domesticating of them. Second, the question then is implementation. When I was serving as High Commissioner for Human Rights I would say to every country, you have problems. No country has a perfect record, not even the modern Ireland or the modern United States. It's a question of making progress. I serve on the board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and we have an Ibrahim Index measuring the governance of the 53 African countries. We see progress in poor countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone because they are improving their governance. And they are coming from a low base but with steady improvement. In recent years we saw Zimbabwe going down. Now I think we'll see Zimbabwe coming up again. Governance is vital.

Would you say your outlook for Zimbabwe is optimistic?

My outlook is hopeful and more so now that I am here. Optimism not yet; we need to see that there is movement in relation to the Constitutional Review and the Organ Of Reconciliation.

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