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Interview with UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson

  • January 2017

Interview with UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson

“I can see the immense capacity of business to give leadership.”

As globalization shifts more power from government to business, the issue of corporate social responsibility moves rapidly up the agenda. For the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, quite apart from their legal obligations companies need to make a serious voluntary commitment to what she calls “corporate social opportunity” – led from the top.

MARY ROBINSON WAS the first woman to become President of the Republic of Ireland. According to the Irish Times, this internationally renowned constitutional lawyer “changed the face that Ireland presented to the world.” She herself has expressed the wish that “my country might at last move into the second half of the 20th century” and she used her authority to channel the liberal forces at work in Ireland into the construction of a new social order. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson was the champion of the refugees and victims, and attempted to break through the blockade mentality of many governments on the issue of human rights. Her outspoken criticism of the human rights record of a number of countries, including the USA after the attacks of 9/11, resulted in her completing a five year mandate in 2002 but not continuing for a further three years as she had indicated she was prepared to do. Today, as President of Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative she is working primarily to anchor the norms and standards of human rights in the globalization process, with a particular focus on Africa.

The Focus: The Western industrialized nations are witnessing a steady and in some cases dramatic loss of confidence in politicians and political institutions. Are they caught up in a massive crisis of trust?

Mary Robinson: Yes. We know that there is a democratic deficit. In Latin America in particular there is real concern that democratic governments are not delivering and that is leading to experimenting with different models that are much less democratic. But even in Western Europe the deficit is a problem.

The Focus: What led to this crisis of trust?

Mary Robinson: One reason is that democratic governments are not delivering on their promises, which is partly due to the fact that governments are less powerful than they were after the Second World War. There were fewer governments then, but they actually had more political power. That, in turn, has been a problem now with the United Nations as an intergovernmental body focused on sovereign states. It is actually a mid-20th century institution and much weaker than it was when it was originally created, because governments themselves are less capable of implementing the kind of promises or programs that they have put forward.

“To make progress we have to build a multi-stakeholder process, harnessing the appropriate energies.”

The Focus: But are governments failing to deliver because they are short on political power or is that power drifting out of their hands because they are short on capability?

Robinson: There is an element of both. If we want to make progress in key areas now, we have to build a multi-stakeholder process, harnessing the appropriate energies. So not only the politicians but also business, the wider civil society, and the trade union movement all have a contribution to make, whether it is at national or at international level. This brings us back to one of the reasons why there is less trust among citizens towards their governments: The governments are seen to be less effective than they used to be. The private sector is perceived as being so much more efficient, and so globalization implies a transfer of power to the private sector. There are numerous issues that governments used to deal with that they now no longer deal with to the same extent: Prisons have been privatized in a number of countries; education and health are becoming privatized. Governments don’t have the capacity to deliver – or not in isolation.

The Focus: Is it necessarily a bad thing when governments surrender some of their power and influence?

Robinson: It is not necessarily bad. We need to be prepared to have multi-stakeholder, well-managed partnerships. That can be very effective. We saw this happen at international level with the UN Convention on Landmines, for example, where some governments didn’t want to go forward, but enough governments did and with them many NGOs. At international level we need to see this as the 21st century way of doing things.

The Focus: It does seem that if governments stop taking action, business very often takes over. Take the Kyoto Protocol, for example, which the U.S. government is not willing to sign. Business seems to be taking the lead and saying: OK, then we will do something about the environment.
Robinson: Some businesses are giving leadership and taking over; other businesses still try to cloud the debate. It is not a very transparent or commendable scene. There are some parts of the business world, in my judgment, that are actually trying to ensure that the U.S. does not take on board the preponderance of arguments for global warming, and that is something I am really very concerned about.

The Focus: Do we already have adequate multi-stakeholder structures in place to deal with these problems?

Robinson: We are beginning to have. I know of one because I have been involved in it: the Helsinki Process on Globalization and Democracy, which is co-chaired by two modest countries that represent North and South – Finland and Tanzania. I am a member of what is called the Helsinki Group, which is quite broad in its reach. There are 20 of us; we represent business, academic institutions, trade unions, and also the social movement. And there are 12 governments that have now become friends of the Helsinki Process: in Asia, Malaysia, Thailand and India; in Africa, Algeria and South Africa; in Europe, the United Kingdom, Spain and Hungary; in Latin America, Mexico and Brazil.

The Focus: What is the idea behind the Helsinki Group?

Robinson: As other countries now join, our aim is to arrive at a global balance of countries and to get a broad stakeholder movement that will move us away from the idea that the North is necessarily right about everything and can automatically give leadership. Also, within each country we aim to foster multi-stakeholder approaches to bridge the global divides which would mean strengthening civil society and business in the roles that they can play. I am not sure whether a model that is coled by two modest countries will have sufficient political impact, but I think the approach is absolutely right.

The Focus: As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights you were a strong supporter of the UN Global Compact, which brings together the United Nations and major corporations with the aim of making globalization more socially and ecologically compatible. What does the response from big business look like?

Robinson: It is fascinating for me to see that major multinational corporations have missed the point and the opportunity of the Global Compact, particularly here in the United States. They seem to adopt the view that “This is from the UN, so we don’t really like it and also it is quite a low standard; we are already doing that, so we don’t need this.” They are actually missing the most important opportunity to level the playing field for corporations worldwide. Interestingly, about half of the members of the Global Compact come from developing countries – from Argentina, from Brazil, from India, and most recently from China. These corporations have signed on because they want to learn about corporate responsibility. But why should they take this seriously when the major multinational companies in the United States have not signed on? I cannot understand the mindset of major corporations that prevents them from seeing how powerful this could be.

The Focus: Changing attitudes tends to be a long-term proposition. Many corporations are more focused on the short term.

Robinson: I think they are governed by a kind of cultural mindset that is not helpful at the moment. Particularly here in the United States there is a lack of comprehension about anything to do with the United Nations. There is an immediate resistance, and it doesn’t seem as if there is any awareness of the tactical significance of the Global Compact. I say that as somebody who, for other reasons, is quite critical of the fact that the Global Compact isn’t strong enough and doesn’t impose a high enough standard. But it is a wonderful tool to begin a serious debate about corporate responsibility and about the influence that business can have. If the Chinese business community takes the Declaration of Human Rights, core labor standards, and environmental standards seriously, the government of China will take them far more seriously, too.

The Focus: Corporations and their leaders are accountable to their shareholders. It may not be the perfect situation, but it is a fact. So how can one make corporate leaders more aware of their social responsibility?

Robinson: Part of the issue is how companies define who their stakeholders are and to whom they should be accountable. It remains the case that most see a direct responsibility to their shareholders, their employees, and their customers. But from a human rights point of view we would wish that corporations would take more seriously their responsibility to the communities in which their factories and facilities are located. Also important is their responsibility to those who work in their value or supply chain. On top of this there has to be a wider discussion about the responsibility of corporations related to public goods – cleaner air, the quality of water, or upholding national laws and international standards. Companies should increasingly see themselves as major corporate citizens with a wider responsibility to the community. Nothing less than their reputation – their image – is at stake. When we see companies who are in complicit relationships with China, for example, making huge profits by providing China with the very software that enables the state to censor its own people, that is not acceptable. We need to engage with such companies to make their responsibilities clear.

The Focus: So greater transparency is part of the answer?

Robinson: Yes. In fact I just finalized a foreword to the 2006 publication of Transparency International – in this case focused on transparency in the health sector, where it is extraordinarily important to tackle corruption and lack of transparency.

The Focus: Are you aware of any examples of companies that could stand as models of good corporate social responsibility?

Robinson: One source of good examples that I am particularly aware of, because I am its Honorary Chair, is the Business Leaders’ Initiative on Human Rights. The project started with seven companies, now there are ten: ABB, Barclays, GAP, Hewlett-Packard, MTV Networks Europe, National Grid, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Statoil and The Body Shop International. The initiative seeks to be a catalyst for developing a shared understanding of the relationship between business and human rights, and raising the profile of human rights on the international corporate agenda. One of the first tools that it has begun to develop is a matrix that shows the vast scope for voluntary business action that might be branded “corporate social opportunity.”

The Focus: What part do the top executives play in this initiative?

Robinson: The idea is actually to cascade the initiative right down through each company. Today it is middle management that networks regularly and carries the initiative forward. But the concept is CEO-led and the CEOs have a very important part to play. We can and do bring in the CEOs at various times and they are very aware of the initiative. The CEO of the GAP was talking to me about it quite recently. The GAPis particularly interesting because they had issued a social report about two years ago in which they admitted that some of their suppliers had been involved in child labor or exploitive labor conditions. They were very worried about how this would be received and were surprised to get a positive response from Amnesty and Oxfam, for example, saying that the GAP had turned the corner. They also found that their own employees were excited about the fact that they could be proud of the GAP, instead of having to face protestors outside. So the GAP put a lot of checks and balances in place and then asked to join this learning forum that is the Business Leaders’ Initiative.

“I want to see a UN that enables a gathering of energies in which business plays its proper role.”

The Focus: On a more personal level, how did your previous roles as a university professor and as a politician compare with being UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?

Robinson: My UN role was the toughest, because I had a demoralized, under-funded office and a huge mandate. And we were up against a conspiracy – particularly of countries that were not supportive of human rights. The idea was to drown us with new mandates without giving us the resources we needed to deal with them. So I learned to connect with the people on the ground who were working with the victims, in order to give them a voice. My office also supported the independent experts and treaty bodies that monitored states for fulfillment of their commitments on human rights. It was as High Commissioner that I began to appreciate the role of business. It was an area I knew I wanted to focus on, if later I had the power to choose.

The Focus: And that desire led you to found Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative?

Robinson: Let me put it this way: Coming from the UN with its global mandate, I chose very deliberately to found an organization that is as small as possible. The wisdom that I have learned is that you can convene a wider cross-section if you have no turf to defend, because then you don’t cut across anyone else’s agenda and you can achieve a great deal. The EGI is tiny, and not self-standing. It is owned by three partners: the Aspen Institute – which handles the day-to-day running of the EGI –, Columbia University, and the International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva. At the same time we also leverage with other partners, such as Oxfam, where I am also President. What we are trying to do is to convene key stakeholders in new alliances, in order to integrate concepts of human rights, gender sensitivity and enhanced accountability into efforts to address global challenges and shortcomings in governance.

The Focus: Coming full circle: With institutions like the United Nations clearly unable to enforce their ideas, could we soon be witnessing a shift in impact away from such institutions and toward the corporate sector?

Robinson: I don’t think so. The UN may not be very effective but I am a fan of the idea of the United Nations. I have been there, I know the problems. To parody Winston Churchill: It is the worst system, except we don’t have any other. I want to see a UN that is a bit like the Helsinki Process; that is open; that enables a gathering of energies in which business plays its proper role. I can see the immense capacity of business to give leadership. But the corporate sector per se is bottom-line oriented. It can be very corrupt and it is not very principled. That is why I don’t think it is sufficient just to have voluntary codes of behavior. I am in favor of legislation which helps to ensure that there is an even playing field and rewards those who play by the rules.

The interview with Mary Robinson was conducted by A. Daniel Meiland, Egon Zehnder, New York, and Ulrike Mertens, THE FOCUS.

Mary Robinson

1944 - On May 21, Mary Bourke is born into a family of physicians in Ballina in the Republic of Ireland.
1967 - She completes honours degree courses in Law and Romance Languages at Trinity College, Dublin and is called to the bar.
1969 - After obtaining her Master of Laws degree at Harvard, at the age of just 25, Mary Bourke becomes the youngest ever Professor of Law at Trinity College. She is elected by the graduates of Trinity College to a seat in the Irish Senate, to which she is re-elected for 20 years.
1970 - Mary Bourke marries protestant lawyer Nicholas Robinson. In the years that follow, the couple have three children.
1990 - The Irish Labour Party nominates the internationally renowned expert in constitutional law as a candidate for the Irish presidency. Mary Robinson is elected as the first female head of state in Ireland.
1993 - A meeting with Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams during a “private visit” to Belfast prompts a storm of protest. Observers see Ireland gradually breaking free from the grip of conservative/Catholic politics in the course of Robinson’s presidency.
1997 - Robinson announces that she will not be standing for a second term as President. In June, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appoints her – and the General Assembly confirms her – as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
2002 - She declares her decision to step down as Commissioner for Human Rights but prior to that she had agreed to serve an additional fifth year and so ended her mandate in September. With her open criticism of violations of human rights she had become regarded as a fearless and difficult customer, not least in China and the USA.
2002 - In October, Mary Robinson establishes Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative (EGI) and becomes its first president. She is also Honorary President of Oxfam International, and Vice President of the Club of Madrid.
2004 - A dedicated advocate of human rights, Mary Robinson makes her way to a press conference on the topic of capital punishment

PHOTOS: Jürgen Frank/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images, Polak Matthew/Corbis Sygma, Reuters/Corbis, AFP

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