Mary Robinson Interview

GEORGE NEGUS: Mrs Robinson, it’s good to see you and welcome to Australia again.



GEORGE NEGUS: As a civil libertarian and an advocate of human rights, I mean, how do you react to a comment like John Howard, our Prime Minister, made quite recently when he said “The most important civil liberty I have and you have is to stay alive and to be free from violence and death.”

MARY ROBINSON: I think it is very important that people are protected, that there is a sense of human security. It’s how we go about it and what is our real objective, and the attacks, the terrorist attacks, that we’ve seen are attacks also on what we believe in – democracy and freedom. So we need to be very clear that in being effective in countering acts of terrorism we also uphold, to the greatest degree possible, the rule of law and standards of human rights.

GEORGE NEGUS: Where does the line between protecting security and protecting freedoms begin and end? I mean it’s becoming a finer and finer line. It’s almost become the debate in the world now, isn’t it?

MARY ROBINSON: I think it differs in different countries. I think sadly in the United States, after the terrible attacks of 9/11, there was a sweeping response which eroded a lot of the standards and I was still high commissioner for human rights at the time and could see the knock-on effect in very undemocratic countries that were using the war on terrorism to suppress freedom of the press, political opposition, lock up people that should never have been locked up, et cetera.

The US, unfortunately, set an example that was followed with much less likelihood of checks and balances, because these are not very democratic countries, but they regarded the United States as the standard bearer. And I was told as high commissioner look, the standards have changed. And I would say “No, they haven’t I’m the high commissioner, they haven’t changed.”

GEORGE NEGUS: It sounds to me like the George Bushs, the Tony Blairs and the John Howards of this world must have had their fingers in their ears when that happened because they seemed to be wanting to go harder and harder and a lot of the polls are showing that the people also would like to see harsher laws where the clamp down on terrorism is concerned.

MARY ROBINSON: It’s not an either or. It’s being more effective. I want to counter acts of terrorism. Human rights is unequivocal, it’s absolutely against these terrible attacks on innocent people.

GEORGE NEGUS: You think clamping down on human rights is actually playing into the hands of the terrorists as some people claim.

MARY ROBINSON: Yes, because part of the attack is on our standards, on our standards of rule of law and protection of human rights. And that’s not to say that we can’t take measures. There can be some curtailment of the full freedoms that we enjoy when we are under the kind of threats and pressures.

So it’s to have a measured response which recognises that, if there are to be inroads, they have to be proportionate, they have to be for a limited time, if possible, they have to be very carefully monitored, et cetera. Not kind of swept away at the first threat and then, afterwards, not even regarded.

GEORGE NEGUS: What do you say to the critics of your position who would say this is the classic armchair Liberal position? You can’t reason with these people, the judicial system is not good enough, due process is not good enough, we want something to prevent these things from happening, not deal with them through the courts which is slow, tedious and while we’re dealing with one terrorist another one is preparing to drop a bomb or put a bomb somewhere else.

MARY ROBINSON: What you’re saying largely reflects the Bush Administration’s approach. And just the other day in Chicago I was at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association. I was one of 10 people, an eminent panel, if you like, on precisely these issues, really without exception we felt this war on terrorism is not being conducted with the balance that will be successful.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is your message getting through? It doesn’t sound like it is if you look at the Blair, Bush, Howard approach.

MARY ROBINSON: But if you look at the polls in the United States at the moment, they’re increasingly worried about where this war on Iraq is going.

GEORGE NEGUS: The people of America?

MARY ROBINSON: The people of America.

GEORGE NEGUS: But the government of America keeps telling us they’re winning both the war on terror and the war in Iraq.

MARY ROBINSON: But I think people are really worried, the language of war, the way it’s been conducted.

GEORGE NEGUS: What about people who incite others to violence and to acts of terrorism? In this country now we’re hearing that the authority, the intelligence authorities, and the police believe there are 50 or 60 people who are potential terrorists, if you like, in the country. What do we do about them? Is banning or restricting free speech the way to go? What’s again the fine line between incitement to violence and actually being responsible for it?

MARY ROBINSON: There is a fine line and it’s not easy to draw and there isn’t a huge difference between those of us who believe in the rule of law and human rights. It means that you’re not equivocal about torture, torture is not acceptable. And what they’re finding now in the United States and it’s the intelligence officers, the military who are prosecuting these crimes have said the evidence is now useless because of the torture of those held in Guantanamo Bay.

GEORGE NEGUS: You mention Guantanamo Bay, do you believe John Howard and his government should be calling on the Americans to have David Hicks, our Guantanamo Bay prisoner, if you like, who’s had not anything like the due process you’re talking about and doesn’t look like he’s going to get it, have they shirked their responsibilities in terms of human rights, his rights?

MARY ROBINSON: Well, the conditions under which everyone is held in Guantanamo Bay are not acceptable because they do not comply with the Geneva Conventions and I think every country should look after its own citizens just so Australia should certainly have regard for an Australian citizen caught in those circumstances.

GEORGE NEGUS: If you still had your human rights, UN Human Rights Commissioner’s hat on, would you be waving a finger at John Howard and saying this is wrong, this man is not getting due process, you should get him back to Australia, you should be putting the wood on the Americans to get him back.

MARY ROBINSON: The best pressure on a government comes from its own citizens but I do regret. I think there was a time when Australia was looked to in the area of human rights and leadership on these kinds of issues, leadership on developments issues.


MARY ROBINSON: And yet now, I’m very focused on tackling poverty and we’ve seen European countries, including Ireland, Britain, France, Germany, all stretch to reach that 0.7%. I look around me here in Australia, this country’s doing very well and yet you’re very low on the official development aid.

There’s something strange about not making the connection between bridging the divides in our world. We have to have an approach that recognises that when there is a whole proportion of countries, and of parts of countries, that feel left out of the benefits of globalisation that they can be manipulated. It’s not the poverty directly, it’s the humiliation, the anger, the resentment and then using this as an excuse.

GEORGE NEGUS: And on human rights then, what would you give us out of 10 at the moment?

MARY ROBINSON: I would say that the record isn’t great at the moment and I say that with sadness. This is a great country, there is many things going well in it but in relation to indigenous peoples, in relation to the approach to tackling terrorism which puts all the emphasis on a kind of war approach rather than what is this really about.

GEORGE NEGUS: We can only hope. Great to talk to you again. Thank you.