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A bird's eye view of the vineyard
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Dublin Opinion >>
Mary Robinson: ‘Everybody matters’ ...but the people of Erris
- Campaigners highlight Robinson's silence on human rights in County Mayo -
Last night Enda Kenny met with Mary Robinson for an evening soiree in Ballina Arts Centre to launch her new book. The title of her memoir, ‘Everybody Matters’ was a ironic reminder of the silence maintained by Robinson on the human rights abuses associated with Shell’s Corrib Gas project. Since 2002 Shell have been operating less than 35 miles away from her home in Ballina and over that time human rights concerns have been documented by international human rights organisations including Frontline Defenders (“Breakdown of Trust: a Report on the Corrib Gas Dispute http://ww.frontlinedefenders.org/files/en/corrib_gas_re...t.pdf).
Campaigners from Shell to Sea and Rossport Solidarity Camp travelled to the launch to highlight Robinson’s continuing silence on human rights issues in her home county, but were refused entry to the Arts centre for the event by Gardaí. Ten campaigners held a picket outside the event holding placards which read, ‘What about human rights on your doorstep?’, ‘Mary Robinson – human rights N.I.M.B.Y’, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’, ‘Mary – what about human rights in Mayo?’, and ‘And you used to be so good!!’
Maura Harrington, who previously campaigned for Mary Robinson in her presidential election campaign in 1992, attempted to speak with Robinson as she approached but was quickly pushed out of the way by a Garda. Harrington recalled how Robinson’s presidential victory had felt, as it did for many people in Ireland, like the first time her vote had really counted. She was the first elected president in the office's history not to have had the support of Fianna Fáil.
Robinson has an incredible record of work and achievements to her name. As Ireland’s president she achieved a 93% approval rating from the Irish public. Her list of titles and honorary degrees reflects the almost unrivalled respect which she enjoys throughout Ireland and internationally. It is impossible not to appreciate Robinson's history – but does she have an excuse for ignoring Corrib? Her role as president ended in 1997, long before the human rights problems associated with Corrib arose. In her role as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights between 1997 and 2002 she will have been keenly aware of human rights abuses associated with Shell’s work in Nigeria. From 2002 onward Robinson was in an ideal position to comment on the need to safeguard human rights in the planned drilling area in Ireland. However even in summer 2005, when Shell and state attitudes to human rights were revealed to international outcry, and thousands piled onto the streets of Dublin in support of the imprisoned Rossport Five, Robinson was noticeably silent.
In 2007 Nelson Mandela asked Robinson to join an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights called The Elders (http://www.theelders.org/about). The Elders work to protect human rights both by ‘engaging in private advocacy, using their collective influence to open doors and gain access to decision-makers’ and by working ‘publicly to promote neglected issues and speak out against injustice’. According to their published mission, their work includes; 'listening to everyone, no matter how unpalatable or unpopular, to promote dialogue', 'providing an independent voice that can speak out, challenge injustice and break taboos', 'creating space for campaigners and policy makers to broach difficult issues', 'connecting people with decision-makers, ensuring the needs of ordinary citizens are always represented' and 'highlighting neglected issues to generate media coverage and political attention'. Robinson’s silence is difficult to justify given that each one of these efforts is so sorely needed with regard to Corrib.
Robinson’s decision to ignore Corrib is striking in the shadow of the work of her colleague and chair of the Elders group Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu has long been an outspoken supporter of the affected communities in Mayo. In 2007 Tutu issued a statement on the high-pressure pipeline, stating that “The pipe’s pressure is beyond anything that has ever been passed close to domestic habitation anywhere in the world. There are on record a number of disastrous explosions at significantly lesser pressures. These are matters of fact, so people have a right to be concerned.”
Tutu also spoke out about a specific instance of abuse against campaigner Willie Corduff, describing how Corduff was “physically attacked, under cover of darkness, by the agents of a multinational corporation, resulting in his being hospitalised and left severely hurt and traumatised”.
Robinson’s professional peers feel compelled to speak out on Corrib – so why does she remain silent? It seem unlikely that she has not noticed the beneficial impact she could make in this conflict. However unpopular or taboo the Corrib subject may be, it is equally unlikely that any comments she might make could damage her near-saintly image in the public consciousness. Is it simply too late for such a revered public figure to admit that she could have been wrong, that she should have spoken out sooner? Or has her journey from somewhat radical beginnings to joining a global elite, aligned her too closely with the establishment and big business to care about the vulnerable in her own society?
The policies and pronouncements of her latest organisation, the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice (http://www.mrfcj.org/) certainly indicate how distant Robinson’s politics now lie from the social justice movements she might once have championed. The foundation has co-opted the language of ‘climate justice’ but its activities do not reflect the meaning of these words as developed by grassroots campaigners throughout the world. Instead of opposing the false solution of carbon trading Robinson’s foundation is working against efforts for climate justice, effectively endorsing the use of carbon markets in Africa. For this the Robinson Foundation is openly criticised by activists, academics, researchers, and environmental justice groups who are genuinely working towards climate justice, to the extent that her organisation has been dubbed ‘Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Injustice’. As South African campaigner Patrick Bond has put it, “She gazes upwards at power, not down at the realities or at potential grassroots allies. Her use of the two words climate justice are utterly incongruous. The more people who call her on it, the better.” (http://lists.fahamu.org/pipermail/debate-list/2012-Janu....html)
In her ‘upward gaze’ Mary Robinson has become blind to the real battles for human rights and dignity being fought at her feet. A cold detachment from the campaigners appealing to her yesterday evening was apparent as she settled into her car. Before being chauffeured away from the launch Robinson was asked by a campaigner about her neglect of human rights at home. She replied,' I do not get involved in local issues’.
In one sense Robinson is right, for people living in Erris, the neglect of their rights to safety and privacy are very local, personal issues which they deal with intimately every day. But the reasons for these threats to human rights are the very same global issues which Robinson has been battling throughout the world. Perhaps it is time that her fellow “Elder” Archbishop Desmond Tutu remind her of the international reach of the Corrib struggle, the human rights abuses which have been documented thus far, and of the global forces of corporate control, corruption and resource extraction and their impacts on human life, which she is very well qualified to comment on.
In her presentation to the People’s Forum in July of this year, local resident in the affected area of Mayo, Betty Schult finished by saying “In his report ‘Breakdown of trust’ Brian Barrinton uses the term ‘human rights defender’ for everyone here who goes out to pratcise and demand their fundamental rights. I was uncomfortable with that at first because I always imagined human rights defenders as much more extraordinary, heroic people who sacrifice a lot more than we do. But I agree now .......In my view we do not own fundamental rights as human beings just because we exist. Our human rights were not given to us by a higher power; they were recognized and declared by people like you and me. If ordinary people in ordinary communities like ours do not keep using them, claiming them all the time, if we neglect to improve and expand and practice them, then we will lose them.” [http://www.shelltosea.com/content/peoples-forum-july-2012]
Mayo County Council and Ballina Town Council have announced the intention to build a visitor and human rights research centre at the site of Mary Robinson’s birth in Ballina. Perhaps the facility will finally allow Mary Robinson the opportunity to listen to campaigners like Betty Schult and break her silence on the human rights concerns of people affected by the Shell’s Corrib gas project at her doorstep.