Human Rights Lessons from High Commissioner


United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson encourages action in "small places close to home"

By Ruth Jacobs
Photography by Rob Kievit '09

Former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson
Photo by Rob Kievit '09
Mary Robinson can smell the blood in Somali churches following the genocide in 1994. She remembers the sight of prisoners in Rwanda, packed so closely that they could not move and developed gangrene. She recalled these scenes to draw a parallel to what is happening now in Darfur, she told a Colby audience at the second annual Senator George J. Mitchell Distinguished International Lecture in October.

"After Rwanda we said, 'never again,' and yet we are not really focusing the world's attention," she said. "We could relieve the suffering of those women who are being raped when they go for firewood, when they go for water, those villages that are being decimated."

After serving as president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997, Robinson became the second United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In that role she traveled the world to gain a deep understanding of human rights abuses. In the subsequent decade, she says, things haven't changed. "We haven't got over the problem of the gross violations that require world attention," she said.

The crisis in Darfur, she said, is "getting worse and worse." With the world's attention focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Europe, "there's not the political will," she said, to devote the necessary forces to Sudan.

So what can college students do about this and other atrocities happening globally? Start small. "Often a very good thing is to work locally and work from the local out. ... Human rights, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, matter in small places." It's a lesson students can take from Colby to [wherever] they land"including their future workplaces.

"If human rights are going to matter in small places close to home, they have to matter a great deal more in the corridors of power." That includes the boardrooms of major companies, she said. "Some of you, when you go where you're going to go, will be able to be very influential in these areas."

If the students' activism on the issue of Darfur and Colby's investments (see below) is any indication, they already are having an impact.
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  • On April 2, 2009, KEVIN BECK wrote:
    The wars in Rwanda, Somalia and Darfur if all put together would be similar to the genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina from 1992-1995. The people of Bosnia-Hercegovina were murdered, tortured, raped, executed and starved as the worlds diplomats from numerous countries held conferences, passed resolutions and made statements. The United Nations, the United States and many other countries and groups are all heavily responsible for the death and destruction in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Anyone who thinks that the United States or the United Nations will make a deent solution better be prepared to be very dissapointed. Bosnia's population starved to death in many instances while the United Nations maintained an arms embargo against the legal and human rights respecting Bosnian Government in addition to the crimes committed by the United Nations that saw 8000 Bosnian men and boys handed over to the Bosnian Serb Forces of the war criminals Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic who then had them all executed by military firing squads.