The Trouble with Mary Robinson

President Obama’s awarding of a Presidential Medal of Freedom to former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson has sparked widespread criticism. Commentators have pointed to Robinson’s role in the infamous 2001 Durban “anti-racism” conference and, more generally, to what UN Watch has suggested is a long record of bias against Israel.

Oddly enough, however, little has been made of Robinson’s views on America. More specifically, her once-upon-a-time controversial criticisms of the Iraq war and the “war on terror” appear to have fallen into a memory hole.

And yet it is surely the latter -- and not her forays into the Middle East conflict -- that inspired the current American administration to honor Robinson as an Obamaesque “agent of change.”

As a politician who rose to prominence virtually overnight as a militant opponent of George Bush’s “wrong war of choice,” it is hardly surprising that Obama would want to honor an international dignitary who, back in the day, was one of the more prominent voices to oppose the Iraq war before it happened. Thus, in February 2003, not yet six months after the end of her term as high commissioner, and a month before the start of the U.S.-led invasion, Robinson penned an editorial for the Irish Times titled “War not the way to restore human rights to Iraq”. Never mind that nobody had said that the war was about “restoring human rights” and that Robinson had raised no such objections regarding NATO’s ostensible “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo four years earlier.

Closely following the playbook established by Jacques Chirac’s and Gerhard Schröder's Franco-German “axis of peace,” Robinson accused the Bush administration of “unilateralism” and insisted, in the name of international law, that the UN Security Council must be given the last word on whether an intervention would take place. She even remembered to observe that it was the “gearing-up” for a war in Iraq that had caused the American administration to “[lose] so much of the worldwide support and sympathy which were manifest in the months following … 9/11.” This is, of course, just the “myth of squandered sympathy” that one year later would form the centerpiece of the Democratic Party’s failed 2004 presidential campaign.

In that same year, Robinson would take up a professorship at Columbia University in New York. Discussing the Iraq war in a November 2005 interview with Reuters, she remarked cheerfully that “what I find living now in the United States is an encouraging, wide sense of some of the checks and balances kicking in. ... In Congress you have, at last, a sense, of ‘we were misled, we should have been more attentive.’” “It was not a legitimate war,” Robinson told Reuters flatly, “and I am glad that more and more people … are coming out to say so.” “The poor, beleaguered people of Iraq are not better off,” she added. Apart from respect for the office of the presidency, why, after all, should Obama not want to honor someone who provided a touch of gravitas to “Bush lied, people died”?

It is interesting to note that in her 2005 Reuters interview, Robinson chose to describe the Iraq war as “illegitimate.” By repeatedly taxing the Yugoslav government with human rights violations in Kosovo in her capacity as UN high commissioner, Robinson herself massively contributed to the public “legitimacy” enjoyed by NATO’s aerial war against Yugoslavia in 1999. But, as it happens, that war was conducted without any UN Security Council mandate.