They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
—Derek Mahon, "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford"
Throughout my time in office I had to think constantly about how a small and underfunded office could make an impact on advancing human rights and holding governments to account where there was wide-scale impunity. I realised that I could play a significant role by being close to the victims, bringing out their accounts, which was why so much of my time as high commissioner was spent travelling to many of the most troubled regions of the planet, where people's rights were being violated and they longed for somebody to alert the world to what was happening to them.
In all, I made 115 trips to more than seventy countries during five years, almost always with the idea of helping to amplify the voices of victims, helping them to feel that somebody was listening. It brought home to me the power of the act of bearing witness. This was something I had encountered when I visited Somalia as president of Ireland. The act of witnessing is neither easy nor as forthcoming as might be expected. We turn away so often. I did not want to let that happen. Even though I held a UN title, I had nothing tangible to offer victims who were expressing their direct witness of torture, how their families had been killed, how they had been deprived of their land, their homes. They needed our action, not our tears;our practical, downright, problem-solving help, and not our wordless horror. Yet I felt that to listen, bear witness, and respect the humanity of those I was listening to, and report back to a jaded world, was a start. I wanted to nurture a sense that the United Nations understood that these voices mattered.
There are some visits that stay in my mind because they illustrate perfectly the different facets of the work my colleagues and I were doing, and the kind of human rights violations we were dealing with.
In early 1999, world attention focused on the conflict in Kosovo, and the huge exodus of refugees driven out to different countries, especially Albania. In May the Swiss government put at my disposal a small plane to visit countries of the region and draw attention to the plight of victims and to the human rights violations being perpetrated by Serbian forces. Over a few days, we travelled to Albania, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and into Serbia itself by road from Zagreb. My two most vivid memories involve Kosovar refugees in Tirana, Albania, and ordinary Serbian civilians in Niš, who had just endured NATO cluster bombing of their housing estate.
Visiting the makeshift camp in Tirana, crowded with Kosovar refugees still traumatised after fleeing violence and savagery by Serbian forces in Kosovo, I listened to some of the worst stories while sitting in small tents that housed about fifteen people, seeing the fear still in the eyes of the children. My human rights officers were compiling initial evidence from witnesses that could be helpful to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the event that leaders such as Slobodan Milošević were indicted. At one stage a colleague suggested I come to a field behind the tents where a teacher was instructing a class. We watched as the children, sitting on the grass, repeated the teacher's words; they had no pens or paper. When she finished, we were introduced. She spoke good English, had been a teacher in Pristina, and had volunteered to teach the children in the camp. "This is what I do; it helps me to cope." She brought me to meet her elderly parents, sharing a tent with two other families, and described their escape from their home in Pristina, how they had watched it burn as they drove away.
The following day, my colleagues and I were in Belgrade meeting the foreign minister and other officials to raise serious concerns about human rights. President Milošević refused to meet me, perhaps because, a few days before, I had met with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Louise Arbour, in Sarajevo. Milošević may have feared that Arbour had given me an indictment to serve on him. Indeed, within a matter of weeks, and despite political pressure from some sources, an indictment for his arrest was issued. Though, as we now know, tracking him down took years.
My colleagues were keen that I travel to the city of Niš to meet the mayor, who had, at great personal risk, been in contact with our office to report human rights violations. With a Serbian military escort, we set off by road, a journey of about two hours. We saw flashes of bombing in the distance. Shortly afterwards our small convoy was stopped and we were informed that NATO forces had just bombed part of Niš. I feared we would have to abandon the visit. We waited, and then suddenly we were rushed at some speed to a suburb, where we saw the immediate aftermath of the cluster bombs NATO planes had dropped. No one in that suburb had been killed, but several people were injured; a man invited me into his room in a high-rise block of flats that had suffered a direct hit and showed me a live, unexploded cluster bomb on the window ledge. As I came back down I was told the mayor had arrived, and we had a brief, tense meeting, where he quickly updated me and then left; he was clearly worried about being seen with me.
Our convoy returned to Belgrade before nightfall. There had been much emphasis by NATO forces on how targeted bombing was, hitting only military targets. I had seen for myself that this was not always the case.
From Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice by Mary Robinson. Copyright 2013 by Mary Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing.