Mary Robinson and the Mark of Durban
Should Mary Robinson be awarded the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom for being an “agent of change”?
In March 2004, we noted that, “Whatever her accomplishments, Mary Robinson’s legacy will be forever entwined with Durban’s racism-turned-racist conference that disgraced the UN.”
In the words of the late Tom Lantos, U.S. delegate to the conference and founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus:
To many of us present at the events at Durban, it is clear that much of the responsibility for the debacle rests on the shoulders of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who, in her role as secretary-general of the conference, failed to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track.
Lantos throughly documented her counter-productive acts of omission and commission in the vital lead-up process. For example, Robinson failed to confront the odious anti-Israel language adopted at the Tehran pre-conference of February 2001:
By appearing to condone the Asian conference’s efforts to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the agenda of the World Conference, she betrayed its intentions and emboldened those intent on using the conference for their own political purposes. From that moment the conference began to take a dangerous trajectory that became ever more difficult to correct.
As Colin Powell and Lantos attempted to salvage the event, Robinson undercut their efforts:
Mrs. Robinson’s intervention with the assembled delegates later in the same day left our delegation deeply shocked and saddened. In her remarks, she advocated precisely the opposite course to the one Secretary Powell and I had urged her to take. Namely, she refused to reject the twisted notion that the wrong done to the Jews in the Holocaust was equivalent to the pain suffered by the Palestinians in the Middle East. Instead, she discussed “the historical wounds of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust on the one hand, and…the accumulated wounds of displacement and military occupation on the other.”
Thus, instead of condemning the attempt to usurp the conference, she legitimized it. Instead of insisting that it was inappropriate to discuss a specific political conflict in the context of a World Conference on Racism, she spoke of the “need to resolve protracted conflict and occupation, claims of inequality, violence and terrorism, and a deteriorating situation on the ground.” Robinson was prepared to delve into the arcana of a single territorial conflict at the exclusion of all others and at the expense of the conference’s greater goals. Robinson’s intervention broke all momentum that the U.S. had developed. The Arab countries immediately seized on these statements as a clear indication that the tide had turned again in their favor, dropped all talk of compromise, and began pressing for the continuation of the Middle East discussion in Durban.
Ten Items from the UN Watch Files: Mary Robinson’s U.N. Record
But problems with Robinson preceded Durban. UN Watch closely monitored her 1997-2002 tenure as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. We gave her credit on various occasions for speaking out on human rights issues. But in several key instances her moral megaphone was selective, nowhere more than in the case of Israel. Following are ten pertinent items from the UN Watch files.
1. In May 1998, we wrote:
High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson fans the flames of Middle East conflict when she describes Palestinian demonstrators hurling bricks, rocks and Molotov cocktails as a “peaceful assembly.”
2. In September 2000, UN Watch accused Mary Robinson of ignoring impartiality and integrity when she named Mona Rishmawi as her senior advisor, an individual who has compared Israel’s policies to those of the Nazis:
Integrity. That quality, along with efficiency and competence, is of paramount consideration in hiring UN staff. That is according to the UN Charter. But Mary Robinson has just hired as a Senior Advisor Mona Rishmawi, a human rights lawyer who has accused Israel of having “colonial interests;” who has charged Israel with pursuing a “strategy of Judaization;” and who in a 1989 article compared Israel’s regulations in the occupied territories with Nazi laws.
All these charges have been made in writing. And an official close to Ms. Robinson tells us that the High Commissioner was aware of these opinions before she made the appointment.
This appointment is shocking. The Office of the High Commissioner, created to ensure respect for human rights, was designed to deal with highly sensitive issues.
Victims of human rights abuses must have trust in the integrity of those who work there. And if we want governments to cooperate with the Office, they too must have confidence in its senior staff.
It will be argued that now that as the Senior Advisor works for the UN she will have to meet the standards of integrity, regardless of her previous writing.
Now the Charter’s precondition for appointment is “the highest standards of…integrity.” Imagine if in 1989 someone had argued in favor of apartheid, or had made some other hideous comment. Would we today be expected to trust that simply by being employed in the UN, that person’s integrity would be ensured? Of course not.
There is no sensitivity in equating Israel’s policies with those of the Nazis. This viewpoint is scandalous, and it is shameful that the High Commissioner would see fit to accept within her ranks someone who has so argued.
3. In November 2000, Mary Robinson led a fact-finding mission, with the cooperation of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. UN Watch noted:
When she met with Israeli representatives, she discussed her concern about security restrictions (only for those under the age of 45) on access to Muslim holy sites. She did not mention to her Palestinian interlocutors the desecration of Jewish holy sites, such as Joseph’s Tomb. There was a discernable pattern of “listen to the Palestinians and ask the Israelis.” She did not ask hard questions of the Palestinians, based on Israeli concerns.
4. In December 2000, we commented on Robinson’s “one-sided and unhelpful” fact-finding mission:
Mrs. Robinson’s report on her visit to the Middle East seems to suggest that she had reached her conclusions before stepping off the plane. She lamented Israeli actions without considering why they were taken, and she minimized the fact that Israel has been defending itself from armed attacks. While presuming that Israel was the aggressor, she dismissed its concerns one by one. This is not ‘fact-finding,’ it is ‘fact-deciding.’
In our age, when human rights can be used as a sword as much as a shield, it is imperative that every office holder recognize the depth of his or her responsibility. In this case, regrettably, the office holder came up short.
5. In January 2001, a substantial article on Robinson quoted UN Watch on how Robinson acted in person:
From the outset, Robinson has politicised human rights issues in the Middle East with a convert’s fervor. In meetings with officials of UN Watch, a respected body monitoring UN adherence to its own Charter, she is stand-offish, circumspect and correct.
Each and every complaint submitted to Robinson has been rejected. Quizzed, for example, on the reference to Palestine as a state amongst many she has visited, Robinson dismisses this as convenient short-hand. By this yardstick, Robinson’s next visit to Lhasa (assuming she is ever allowed in) will be described as a visit to the sovereign state of Tibet.
UN Watch’s Michael Colson opines, “She does not exercise the kind of restraint the Secretary-General exercises. Mary Robinson, as far as I am concerned, has come close to violating the Charter.” Even the “surprisingly even-handed” speech she recently gave outlining the actual chronology of the Palestinian violence, which demonstrated that Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount did not originate it, seems to have been a one-off. Rumour has it that the speech was the brainchild of a previously undetected impartial staffer.
6. In May 2001, a few months before the Durban conference, a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Seth Lipsky (“What’s that you say, Mary Robinson?“) already picked up on Robinson’s counter-productive actions, and quoted earlier remarks made by the late UN Watch founder Morris Abram, who had been
particularly disappointed in the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, formerly president of Ireland. Abram suspected that she had turned against Israel to curry favor with the Arabs in a bid, ultimately, to succeed Kofi Annan as U.N. secretary-general… Sources quoted by the Forward reckon Mrs. Robinson wants to use the [Durban] conference as her springboard to the post now occupied by Mr. Annan, though Mr. Annan may get another term and Durban may prove to be Mrs. Robinson’s last hurrah.
Lipsky was right — Durban was Robinson’s last hurrah, and as a result of her conduct, the U.S. denied her a second term.
7. In December 2001, only a few months after Durban, former UN Watch executive director Andrew Srulevitch exposed Robinson’s support for a pro-Palestinian demonstration held on the sidelines of an unprecedented gathering of the Geneva Convention signatories, designed to condemn Israel:
The real clue to understanding the event in Geneva was Tuesday´s accompanying conference of nongovernmental organizations, which systematically excluded Jewish groups. Organized by two Palestinian organizations, the NGO conference was not under U.N. auspices, but was “purportedly an open conference,” Srulevitch said. When he arrived, however, Srulevitch was told that the meeting was “closed to NGOs who do not accept the application of humanitarian law in the occupied territories….” Srulevitch called the NGO conference “pathetic,” with about 20 organizations represented, including two officials from the Palestinian Authority.
More egregious, he said, was the coordination between the NGOs and the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who postponed a follow up meeting to the Durban conference to accommodate a pro-Palestinian demonstration against Israel. That rings of bias, Srulevitch said. “The High Commissioner should not be juggling her schedule to allow the maximum number of Palestinian protesters at an anti-Israel demonstration,” he said.
8. In April 2002, UN Watch wrote about a special session of the UN Commission on Human Rights on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which adopted a resolution requesting Robinson to head a fact-finding mission to the region:
In a speech to the Special Session last week, Mary Robinson endorsed Palestinian propaganda that accusations of using Palestinian ambulances to convey explosives were baseless Israeli lies. In doing so, she chose to place greater trust in the Palestinian statement than in that of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which witnessed the unloading of an explosive “suicide belt” from an ambulance and its controlled detonation.
9. In 2003 UN Watch summed up the strengths and weaknesses of Mary Robinson:
High Commissioner Spoke Half-Truths to Power
By UN Watch executive director Andrew Srulevitch, February 4, 2003
Mary Robinson’s term as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was, according to political observers, controversial. Her supporters attribute this reputation to her willingness to stand up to the great powers. She criticized the United States for its treatment of prisoners of war from Afghanistan held at Guantanamo Bay, spoke out against Russian abuses in Chechnya and ruffled quite a few official feathers on a visit to China. Her staunchest critics, though, are not the governments of the United States, Russia or China. They are Jewish organizations and the government of Israel.
Some of the accusations are unfair. Too much blame has been assigned to her for the disastrous Durban Conference against racism. It was the Organization of the Islamic Conference that hijacked the conference as part of a strategy to vilify Israel in every UN forum. Ms. Robinson could, however, have taken an early and public stance against the OIC’s attempts to slander the Jewish movement for self-determination – Zionism – as racist, to denigrate the Holocaust and to ridicule the problem of anti-Semitism by perverting its accepted meaning to include anti-Arab racism. But she did not. This was a case of failed leadership, not of bias.
During her term in office, Mary Robinson addressed many complex political and humanitarian situations, including Kosovo, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Congo. But only her assessments of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians caused such virulent charges of bias — and with good reason. All too often, Ms. Robinson omitted essential facts and context in a manner that would ordinarily cause respectable journalists to be fired.
Just one of her reports provides several examples. Introducing her report on the conflict to the UN Commission on Human Rights last April, Ms. Robinson excused herself for being late. She explained that she had just received a telephone call from Hanan Ashrawi, a well-known Palestinian spokesperson, who requested that she assure the commission that bombs had never been transported in Palestinian ambulances. Such accusations, Ms. Robinson related on behalf of Ms. Ashrawi, were Israeli propaganda. What Ms. Robinson certainly knew — but chose not to say — was that the International Committee of the Red Cross had witnessed a bomb being removed from a Palestinian ambulance and detonated on the spot just four weeks earlier.
In her written report, Ms. Robinson criticized Israel for “a siege around the compound of President Arafat in an attempt to force the handover of certain Palestinians inside.” She neglected to mention that four of the “certain Palestinians” had assassinated an Israeli Cabinet Minister and a fifth had organized the massive smuggling of explosives and anti-aircraft rockets from Iran on the Karine-A ship.
How did Ms. Robinson characterize the armed Palestinians who defiled the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? They were merely “imposing their presence in convents of the various communities.” Watching that incident on CNN, I saw the cynical abuse of a church by terrorists. Ms. Robinson apparently saw unwanted guests.
How was this report received? Iraq, Syria, China, Egypt, Iran and Cuba lauded Ms. Robinson’s testimony as “courageous” and “balanced.” From the world’s leading violators of human rights, such praise is damning for a High Commissioner.
Controversy is an essential characteristic of the job of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who must challenge states — and non-state actors — to uphold and protect human rights. The human rights community calls this “speaking truth to power.” Speaking half-truths is what will mar Mary Robinson’s legacy as High Commissioner.
10. When in 2002 she announced her departure, UN Watch welcomed it:
“We’re quite happy that she’s stepping down. She’s exhibited quite clear bias against the state of Israel,” said Andrew Srulevitch, director of U.N. Watch.