Wisdom Watch: Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and former U.N. high commissioner, is part of a new organization called the Elders. She is among a group of people who will work together to help solve some of the world's most pressing problems.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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But first, last week in Johannesburg, South Africa, former President Nelson Mandela celebrated his 89th birthday. About 250 of his friends - including world leaders, Nobel laureates and many celebrities - turned out to help him celebrate. That birthday event for Mandela - who is also called Madiba by friends and countrymen - also launched a new initiative called the Elders.

It's an effort to conquer some of the world's most pressing problems by drawing on the expertise of some of the world's wisest people. Among the Elders, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. She joins us now from her office in New York to talk about the challenges the Elders will tackle and her own approach to leadership. Madam president, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MARY ROBINSON (Former President, Ireland): It's a pleasure. Of course, the first thing is, psychologically, I don't feel an Elder. I feel far too young. But apart from that, it was a wonderful and very special honor.

MARTIN: Well, as I understand it, the standard was wisdom, not age, so I'm sure you're more than qualified. And speaking of that, you were a senator for 20 years, you served as president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997. You were U.N. high commissioner for human rights, in the course of which you addressed some truly terrible conflicts - post-genocide Rwanda and so forth.

One would think you might be just ready for a couple of rounds of tennis a week, perhaps a little golf. You've earned the retirement. I'm just wondering why you're willing to take on such a hard job at this stage of your life?

Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I am looking forward to a not too distant future and being very relaxed in our lovely home on a lake in the west of Ireland. But I came in October 2002 here to New York City with a view to sort of giving back somehow. I'd seen man's inhumanity to man, and very often to women and children and the elderly. And I wanted to put a focus on the needs to have a fairer globalization for the poorest countries.

Being invited to join the Elders somehow gives an opportunity to amplify the voices, to have wonderful people like Madiba himself and Graca Machel, his wife, Desmond Tutu, chair of our group of Elders, Jimmy Carter, whom I've always admired so much. I was so glad he got the Nobel Prize for Peace and -some time ago. Kofi Annan, who was my boss in the U.N. and Muhammad Yunus and the recent foreign minister of China, Mr. Li, who swears that he's not out of politics altogether and can be a very independent elder.

And somebody that I think very highly of, Ela Bhatt, who founded the SEWA, the Self-Employed Women's Association in India, and who's known worldwide by grassroots women's organizations. Also we've got an empty seat for Aung San Suu Kyi. So we're honoring somebody who can't join us because he's not allowed by the…

MARTIN: Because she's still under house arrest in Myanmar…

Ms. ROBINSON: …by, yeah, by the military dictatorship, basically, in Myanmar.

MARTIN: What of your experiences most informs your idea of what is possible, what it is possible to accomplish through humanitarian work? And I ask that because many people - you know, I have friends who tell me they don't read the paper anymore because they find it just too depressing. It makes them feel hopeless.

I mean, you look at conflicts that go on and on and on for years and years and years - you know, we need not even name them - and it makes people wonder were there really anything can ever really be accomplished in this realm. So I'd like to ask you, what informs your idea of what you can accomplish?

Ms. ROBINSON: I just meet people on the ground who are doing such extraordinary things to change the circumstances - a lot of them are women and young people who are determined to and make a very big difference by what they're doing.

And it's, therefore somehow important both to recognize what they're doing and connect them with networks, connect them with political power grouping, help them to make a difference. I have very much believed that everyone can actually make some difference in their community, as a consumer now, buying fair trade goods, and on the Internet, being able to be connected with what's happening.

Take, for example, what I was doing very recently in Nairobi. It's easier to tell specific examples. I was at a major conference on women and HIV and AIDS, which was organized by the YWCA, the Young Women's Christian Association. And they went to the trouble of making sure that there were about 450 positive women - meaning women already suffering from the virus - and they are often the poorest, the most discriminated. So there had to be a lot of support in getting them there. But they were there as courageous leaders. I addressed the forum of positive women.

That evening, I participated with a businesswomen's association, businesswomen in Kenya, who are determined to play that part in tackling the issue. I could see possibilities of energizing them. I've read so much about the extraordinary leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt chairing a small group of jurists, eminent lawyers, who almost 60 years ago, drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And we, the Elders, want people to reread that Universal Declaration, see it as a living document, see it as being far better than anything that policymakers and government representatives would come together with now. Now it would be full of caveats and doublethink and hypocrisy, basically. But this is a true document of rights.

Think of article one. It says all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And yet, in our world today, 30,000 children under five die every single day of preventable disease or sheer hunger. So the disconnect between our values and what happens in our world, the Elders must remind and get young people to say we won't tolerate this.

MARTIN: Do you see yourselves showing up at places of conflict as a group, as kind of holding up a moral standard for persons?

Ms. ROBINSON: It maybe - I think it's more likely that where we're talking about serious conflicts, serious areas of human suffering, that the approach will be very discrete, linking with those who are already working there. But if necessary, we will come together collectively to speak out. We'll take our time. We'll deliberate. We'll listen.

I think one of the things that I was very impressed by was the sense that we're all humbled by being invited by Madiba and Graca to be Elders. And so we don't come with any sense that we know the answers. We come very much saying it's a responsibility. And the first thing we will do is listen.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, about a new global humanitarian effort. Madam President, it's such an interesting question, because so many women have been such powerful leaders around the world, and yet culturally - also, you know, to some degree in this country, there are people who still feel that women should not be in the public eye, should not take positions of, you know, top leadership.

There are still people who for whatever reasons - cultural reasons, religious reasons - believe that women should be in the background, or should not be in a position of exerting authority over men. And, of course, you have to respect different cultural understandings, right? On the other hand, you know, you have your perspective on these matters. I just wonder how you mediate a question like that when you're addressing people of a different culture who may not agree with you that women should be in leadership.

Ms. ROBINSON: But certainly, I agree that, you know, that there are so many barriers still for women, especially when you look at the global situation and some of the problems in some developing countries. Women are still so much second-class citizens in many countries.

I'm very aware of very strong cultural barriers. And, in fact, when I was elected president and I was quite surprised - I hadn't even thought about it -that I had an official car and driver. So that was fine. He was of a certain age.

And for the first two days, when he was driving me, he didn't quite know how to cope with the idea of a woman president-to-be, sort of a silence in the car. And then he found that I was, you know, reasonably ordinary person. I have a good sense of humor. And I was doing my best and I was getting up early and working hard as he was.

And he said to me on the third day, he said, you know, you're causing havoc around here. And I said to him, well, why is that? Well, I went home last night to the misses and I said, oh, God, I'm tired. Make me some tea. And she said, things have changed around here. Make your own tea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINSON: (unintelligible) But it was a kind of small symbolism.

MARTIN: You are living in New York now, even though you're (unintelligible)…

Ms. ROBINSON: That's right. And then…

MARTIN: I'm just wondering, you know, Madam President isn't a term we've been able to use in this country, except there was a television show that was on a couple of seasons ago. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I just - I wonder, given your experience in the U.S., whether you think Americans are ready for a female president?

Ms. ROBINSON: Well, let's put it this way. When I finished my seven-year term, it was a hard-fought election. And the current president, President Mary McAleese, was elected. She has served for seven years and indeed, went forward for a second term. In the end it will be 21 years of a woman president in former, very traditional Catholic Ireland. And we both share the same joke that small boys now are growing up in Ireland weep on their mother's knee and say why can't I grow up to be president?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINSON: So you have no idea how things can change.

MARTIN: I'm assuming, Madam President, as you work with the Elders proceeds, that you'll come back and speak to us about it.

Ms. ROBINSON: I'd love to.

MARTIN: We've been speaking with Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland. She is now president of Realizing Rights, a humanitarian group based in New York. She's also involved with a new group, the Elders, that will tackle global issues. She spoke to us from her office in New York. Madam President, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you.

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