Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson spoke about human rights at Stanford on Monday, drawing from her past work as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights and on her more recent work with nonprofits like Realize Rights. She focused on practical action and the role Stanford could play in the process.
“Academic institutions like Stanford . . . have an opportunity to reaffirm and give meaning to what Article I [of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] declared, that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” Robinson said. “Our challenge is to ensure that it comes to life for all people.”
Robinson outlined issues she thought deserved the most attention in developing human rights worldwide, including women’s empowerment, decent wages and health care, institution-building in developing nations and climate change.
Before outlining her own goals, she addressed the diversity of opinions on human rights and the role of the U.N. in that discussion.
“As I say those words, ‘human rights,’ many of you in the audience hear different things . . . we don’t have a totally shared view,” Robinson said.
The U.N.’s work was “never meant to impose a single model of action on governments and countries,” she said. It is, however, meant to provide some guidance and structure.
Robinson said countries need to “bring voices of marginalized women to the political arena.” She spoke about maternal health in Africa versus Ireland, and the role of women in conflict and peace negotiations.
According to Robinson, climate change is the most important human rights issue of the day — but it needs a human face to gain momentum.
“The icon of climate change is a poor woman farmer,” Robinson said. “She has to try and cope . . . [and she has] no safety nets.”
The former president also described decent work as a human right.
“Decent work is central to having a life filled with dignity,” she said. She urged nations to “put job creation at the center of macroeconomic policy.”
In addition to putting the talk in an economic context, Robinson talked about her view on health care reform in the United States during the question-and-answer session. She said that the United States needs to address rights issues on its own soil, especially since it lags behind other nations on human rights scales.
“We need access to health care for ourselves,” she said. “The United States is not doing well on a whole range of issues, and it can do far better.”
Students who came were impressed by the talk — many came because of their concern about human rights issues.
“I was really interested to hear what some of her solutions were,” said Patrick Freeman ‘13. “I’m an Earth Systems major, so her words on climate change most affected me.”
Jeff Gerson ’12 said that Robinson’s words about the importance of academic institutions had a lingering effect.
“The resonance was when she was talking about the influence that institutions have,” Gerson said. By fostering projects like the Yang and Yamazaki Environment and Energy building, “we’re already seeing progress on climate change.”
“There’s supposed to be a strong focus on global citizenship here at Stanford . . . [the talk] enforces that there are avenues to make a difference,” he added.
The lecture was part of the Presidential Lecture series sponsored by the Office of the President and put on by the Center for the Humanities at Stanford.