Former President of Ireland, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and current climate justice campaigner Mary Robinson attended the IBA 2018 where, in front of a packed auditorium in Rome’s gargantuan Convention Centre, she once again used the excellent platform provided by the world’s biggest legal conference to discuss climate change, the rule of law and the state of liberal democracies
Former President of Ireland, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and current climate justice campaigner Mary Robinson attended the IBA 2018 where, in front of a packed auditorium in Rome’s gargantuan Convention Centre, she once again used the excellent platform provided by the world’s biggest legal conference to discuss climate change, the rule of law and the state of liberal democracies. These are all in their own way incredibly complex topics to discuss succinctly as well as knowingly and Robinson proved particularly adept at doing just that over the course of about an hour.
Robinson has been a tireless campaigner for the promotion of human rights, a passion that started, as she told us, in her adolescence when she first discovered the role Eleanor Roosevelt had in shaping the wording of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted at the UN’s General Assembly of 1948; “I saw a woman being pushy with men, that was not common”. Eleanor Roosevelt had been instrumental in simplifying the wording of the declaration while also widening its scope to recognise dignity as a universal right; “I, like Eleanor, believe in the right of all to live in dignity”.
From impassioned youth to Elder
As the discussion progresses Robinson jumps ahead by several decades to explain how an adolescent passion for human rights has now taken on the shape of a campaign for climate justice. By her own admission, Robinson is a “latecomer to looking at the way in which climate change is being dealt with”. A farmer’s daughter herself, it is an encounter with several African farmers about 10 years ago that helped Robinson make the connection between climate change and human rights. Robinson is part of The Elders, a group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to promote peace and human rights across the world. In her role as an Elder she was given the opportunity in 2009 in Copenhagen to speak to several farmers from across Africa. Here she met Constance Okolett, a self-described peasant farmer from Eastern Uganda;
“Constance had a big impact on me…she got up, she said she always stood when she had something important to say, and she told me that what was happening with the droughts she was facing as a farmer was outside her experience, meaning that in over 200 years of family oral history they had never seen such severe droughts so frequently”.
The campaign for climate justice
Through her description of this encounter and how it affected her, Robinson made it clear not only that global warming was having noticeable and deeply impactful consequences, but that it was an issue of social justice; “when a climate crisis hits, women suffer disproportionately”. In the years since her first meeting with Constance, Robinson has had many more encounters with people directly affected by climate change, from a beauty salon owner fighting to re-launch her business after hurricane Katrina ravaged her neighbourhood, to a matriarch having to relocate her flooded island community and “leave the land of the bones of our ancestors”. These encounters have shaped her conviction that “it is the poorest communities and countries that are disproportionately affected by climate change” and that climate change and the human right to dignity are now inextricably linked.
The importance of leadership
Rather fittingly, two days before Robinson attended the IBA the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body dedicated to providing the world with a scientific view of climate change, released a report detailing the many impacts a 1.5°C rise in temperatures as compared to pre-industrial levels would have on the planet. This report provided interesting points for Robinson to discuss, including that if things do not change very soon, as soon as by 2030, the outcome could be “scary” and “irreversible”.
Marginalised societies are often the first the feel the impact of global warming’s wrath while governments continue to profit and grow their economies at great risk of harming the Earth’s natural resources. For any emission reduction targets to be met, Robinson believes leadership is key and the world of business is well suited to taking the helm; “politicians are short-termists and plan on re-election, business leaders have to plan long term”.
While most of the hour-long discussion given by Robinson focused on climate change, she did also answer questions from the audience on whether liberal democracies were in crisis. In answering she once again pointed to the importance of leadership; “we need much more leadership in addressing the issue of populism and addressing it in a way that is fair to all”.