Home The Washington Diplomat May 2008

No Retirement Rest for Former World Leaders Like Ireland's Robinson

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A recurring cartoon spoof on “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1990s featured former U.S. commanders in chief as the “X Presidents,” a superhero-like group that solved international problems like North Korea while simultaneously ridiculing each other.

Little did cartoon creator Robert Smigel realize that such a group would actually be created, albeit far more diverse and more collegial that his all-American, all-white male band of heroes.

The brainchild of billionaire businessman Richard Branson and rock star Peter Gabriel, “The Elders” group was founded last summer to address some of the world’s most intractable problems such as poverty and civil war through intervention by distinguished former world leaders. The group is composed of activists (Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, Graça Machel), former heads of state (Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso), former diplomats (Li Zhaoxing, Lakhdar Brahimi), microfinance pioneers (Muhammad Yunus, Ela Bhatt), and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The idea behind the Elders was to create a group not “tied down by political, economic, and geographic constraints” to tackle tough problems, said Mandela at the Elders’ kick-off event in South Africa last July. “They do not have careers to build, elections to win, constituencies to please. They can talk to anyone they please, and are free to follow paths they deem right, even if hugely unpopular.”

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also emphasized the ability of the Elders, with their political lives behind them, to take risks that are sometimes needed to solve seemingly impossible problems. “We will be able to risk failure in worthy causes, and we will not need to claim credit for any successes that might be achieved,” he said.

Job one was a mission to Sudan last fall to help resolve the Darfur crisis. One participant was former Irish President Mary Robinson. Although she is no doubt pleased to be in such august company, Robinson jokingly referred to the “trauma” of being invited to be an “Elder” during a March speech here at Georgetown University. (Indeed, her 63 years have not bowed her tall frame and she could pass for much younger.) Nonetheless, Robinson said that like Eleanor Roosevelt in her later years, she’s “at an age where she’s learned to be bossy.”

Robinson is using that bossiness on another Elders’ initiative, the “Every Human Has Rights” campaign. Designed to increase awareness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on its 60th anniversary in 2008, the campaign has established an online petition whereby individuals sign a pledge to protect the rights outlined in the declaration. Like the media-savvy president she was, Robinson brandished a pocketsize copy of the declaration for the cameras during her Georgetown speech.

Diaspora for Breakfast?

Robinson picked up some of that media savvy as one of Ireland’s most successful politicians and its first female president, serving from 1990 to 1997. Credited with breathing new life into a largely ceremonial and conservative office, she was given a vague mandate from the people who had elected her to “do us proud.”

Robinson’s first act as president was a symbolic gesture of placing a light in a prominent window of the presidential residence to signify Ireland’s remembrance of the many emigrants who had left their homeland. And although her fellow countrymen ironically weren’t familiar with the concept of a Diaspora (Robinson said they asked, “Do you take two with breakfast?”), her gesture was significant to the visiting Irish-American members of the U.S. Congress, who became teary when they saw the light in the window.

But Robinson did more than make gestures. As the descendent of both loyalists to the British crown and rebels against it, she sought to improve relations with Britain by becoming Ireland’s first president to visit Buckingham Palace and by hosting the Prince of Wales on his visit to Dublin. She also stirred the pot of Northern Ireland politics by meeting with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, getting “terribly criticized” for being photographed shaking his hand.

“For decades we sought ways to contribute to peace in Northern Ireland,” Robinson recalled. “In the end, we took risks to bring those who espoused violence into the political process. Many thought it was impossible, but it worked.”

Not content with merely shaking things up in the British Isles during her presidency, Robinson angered the Chinese by meeting the Dalai Lama and brought attention to the Rwandan genocide with a visit to that country immediately after its civil war. Pursuing controversy apparently suited her electorate, who gave her a 93 percent approval rating. However, she decided against running for re-election because of the office’s seven-year term and its fundamental incompatibility with her activist bent.

Pushing Your Own Buttons

Following her presidency, Robinson went on to head the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in 1997. As in her presidency, she made the office more activist through such moves as visiting Tibet and publicly criticizing capital punishment in the United States. Since leaving the U.N. post in 2002, Robinson now seems glad to be done with the burdens of office. However, it does mean losing some perks.

Midway through her Georgetown speech, a cell phone rang. It was Robinson’s. And with no presidential aide to answer it, she sheepishly fished it out of her bag and turned it off herself. Indeed, Robinson called the adjustment from being the Irish president to being the U.N. human rights commissioner “quite a shock.”

“In the first week I was in an elevator in the U.N. building in New York which failed to move,” she recalled. “A colleague reminded me you need to press the button!”

Though such experiences have obviously been humbling and Robinson self-deprecatingly calls the Elders “exalted has-beens like myself,” she said they have “one power: the power to ask.” She and other Elders are using that power to get leading organizations such as Amnesty International to be a part of the Every Human Has Rights initiative.

But the Elders may have to go beyond high-minded persuasion and rely on old-fashioned cajoling in their effort. At just 13,564 signatures currently, the campaign is far from its goal of getting 1 billion people to sign up. Robinson admitted that the Elders are still in a learning curve. “We’re not doers; we have to stand back a bit,” she said, describing the Elders as having more of an “early warning” role.

“We are not going to solve the world’s problems, but we can be a moral voice,” she explained. “The Irish presidency was non-executive, so it was a case of exerting moral authority, using the bully pulpit. The Elders also rely on moral authority, which means we must listen very carefully and try to amplify the voices that are excluded.”

Facing Political Heat

But the Elders are still clearly testing out the waters as to how far they can go to address in-tractable global conflicts, even though they’re no longer in official office. The group recently faced political heat in April, when former U.S. President Carter had planned to visit Syria, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations with several Elders, including Annan and Robinson. But when criticism erupted over Carter’s meeting with the militant group Hamas in Damascus, Annan and Robinson dropped out of the trip — though Carter went ahead on his own despite coming under fire by Israel and the United States.

But Robinson is hardly shying away from tackling controversial problems, especially those that involve the United States. She also pursues an agenda outside the Elders, largely focused on human rights, trade and immigration — issues that have been profoundly complicated by the U.S.-led war on terrorism, which she argues has alienated and divided much of the world.

“I believe there’s been too much focus on ‘who’s with us and who’s against us’ since 9/11,” Robinson said. “I knew 9/11 would have an impact, but I didn’t think it was going to be this bad,” she added, citing American violations of habeas corpus and torture conventions.

“It’s the moderate Muslims who suffer the most from this,” she warned. “We now even have to re-word ‘democracy’ to ‘accountable government’ to get people in Muslim countries to em-brace the concept.”

Robinson is also facing the effects of 9/11 as chair of the New York-based group Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, which promotes “humane” migration policies among other issues. She is currently studying migration between such countries as Morocco and Spain and holding public hearings on related issues.

Robinson has noticed the use of “harsher and harsher” language to describe immigrants (such as “illegal aliens”) and advocates changing the nom-enclature, such as describing those who overstay a study or work visa as “migrants with irregular status.”

“Language matters, and calling people by a double negative does tremendous harm,” Robinson argued. Yet she acknowledged the need for “migrants to take responsibility to integrate,” while at the same time encouraging more openness to immigration — a fitting position for the former leader of a country whose own emigrants have assimilated all around the world.

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999