Mary Robinson
Stanford Humanities Center



Mary Robinson portrait Mary Robinson portrait, used by permission.

Free and Equal in Dignity and Rights:
The Life and Work of Mary Robinson

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world...”

— Preamble to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 1948)

Dr. Mary Therese Winifred Robinson (née Bourke) is a lawyer, politician, professor, reformer, and human rights advocate. Robinson was born in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland on 21 May 1944 (O’Leary and Burke 1998). Her parents, Aubrey de Vere Bourke and Tessa Bourke, were both medical doctors. By her own account, her sense of idealism and human rights began early, being the middle of five children and the only girl (Bloomberg 2008). The Bourkes have been in County Mayo since the 1300s, a mix of rebels and British loyalists throughout Irish history, some Anglican and some Roman Catholic, with ancestors in the Irish national land movement or serving in the British colonial judicial service. Robinson attended private schools in Ballina, Dublin and Paris. She attended Trinity College, Dublin, at a time when Catholics had to receive the permission of the Archbishop in order to study in what was a bastion of Protestant education (Clifford 2009). At Trinity College, she studied law and won a postgraduate fellowship to Harvard in 1967. After practicing for a year as a barrister, she was appointed Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College in 1969 at the age of 25, and the same year was elected a senator to the Seanad Éireann (Senate or upper house of the Oireachtas [parliament] of Ireland) on the Trinity College panel (“Seanad Éireann” 2010). She would spend the next 20 years in the Seanad Éireann.

Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s was a country in the midst of political and cultural upheaval and economic crisis. (For a more in-depth look at Ireland’s “troubles” see for example Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs, by Marie-Therese Fay, Mike Morrissey, and Marie Smyth, Fay, et al., 1999.) Robinson’s activist proclivities were perhaps awakened during her year at Harvard — in 1967, a time when Harvard and many other American universities were in the throes of student-led protests against the Vietnam War.

Robinson later found herself in the midst of some of Ireland’s own seminal cultural and societal arguments, and always on the side of a more open and “pluralistic” society, in favor of an Ireland with a constitution that guaranteed civil rights to all of its citizens regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religious background or economic makeup. She was initially a political independent, but joined the Labour Party in August 1976. She again became an independent in 1985 over a dispute with the Labour Party and its support for the Anglo-Irish Agreement (signed with the British government of Margaret Thatcher), which aimed to bring an end to the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland but which Robinson felt lacked constitutional balance (O’Sullivan 1993).

It’s not easy to summarize a 20-year career as a legislator in the Seanad Éireann. Robinson, her legislative agenda clearly focused on human rights and more specifically women’s rights, served on several parliamentary committees, including the following:

  • Joint Committee on EC Secondary Legislation (1973-1989)
    • Chairing its Social Affairs Sub-Committee 1977 to 1987
    • Chairing its Legal Affairs Committee from 1987 to 1989
  • Joint Committee on Marital Breakdown (1983-1985)

As a constitutional and legal scholar, Robinson worked tirelessly on a wide range of women’s rights issues, advocating for — and finally winning — the right of women to sit on juries; abolishing the requirement that all women upon marriage resign from the civil service; and winning the rights to family planning and the legal availability of contraception, equal economic rights, and the right to live independently and to divorce (O’Sullivan 1993, O’Leary and Burke 1998).

Robinson did not only focus on women’s issues. It was common in the 1970s for civilian prisoners who were deemed “troublemakers” to be transferred to much more harsh military prisons. She worked to change the rules governing prisons. Foreshadowing her work as Irish President and helping to crystallize her thoughts on Ireland and foreign affairs, Robinson also pushed for increased Irish contributions to Third-World development and for the admission of Ireland into the European Economic Community (EEC).

In addition, during this time period, she served on the Dublin City Council (1979-1983); fought against the development of Wood Quay, one of Europe’s best preserved Viking sites; worked as a legal advisor and with her husband, Nicolas, founded the Irish Centre for European Law in 1988.

Many of the legislative issues for which she had long campaigned having been tackled, Mary Robinson decided not to seek re-election to the Senate in 1989. She went back to private life as a lawyer and academic.

President of Ireland

Private life did not last long, however. In early 1989, Robinson was approached by the Labour Party’s leader, Dick Spring, who she first thought was seeking her legal advice. It soon became apparent that he wanted her to run for the Presidency, an office that up to that point had been seen as largely an apolitical figurehead role normally held by prominent politicians close to retirement. It was an elective office that hadn’t fielded a competitive race since 1973 — and had done so only twice since 1945 (Jones 2001)!

The 1990 Presidential election was a watershed moment for Ireland. The election pitted Robinson against the favorite, Brian Lenihan of the Fianna Fáil (Irish Republican Party) and Austin Currie of the Fine Gael (United Ireland Party). Robinson ran as a non-party candidate (although put forward by the Labour Party), and received considerable support from across the political spectrum to become that country’s first female president, as well as the first President from outside the Fianna Fáil (Jones 2001).

Robinson was inaugurated as the seventh President of Ireland on 3 December 1990. She mapped out her goals in her inaugural speech, declaring, “The stage is set for a new common European home based on respect for human rights, pluralism, tolerance, and openness to new ideas” (Finlay 1990). The excitement in the country surrounding her election was palpable. As Fergus Finley stated, “Only once or twice in a lifetime is it possible for so many people to share in the joy of so crucial a victory.… For women — and men — all over Ireland, the future began at the moment Mary Robinson was elected” (Finlay 1990).

Robinson did not disappoint. She brought a new enthusiasm and purpose to the office of President, employing its symbolism to great effect. Throughout her presidency, she honored the Irish diaspora, speaking about the millions of Irish emigrants from the 18th through the 20th centuries, and their roughly 80 million descendants around the world — most notably in a speech to the Oireachtas in 1995 (Robinson 1995) — and, from her first days in office, burning a lamp in the shape of a candle in the window of the Presidential residence (Áras an Uachtaráin) in Dublin (Finlay 1990). Such was the effect of her publicizing the issue of Irish emigration that Article 2 of the Irish Constitution was amended in 1998 to reflect the importance of the diaspora to Irish history and culture (“Irish diaspora” 2010).

She was also active in politics far beyond mere symbolism, using her limited Constitutional powers (for example, as representative of the state in foreign affairs) to similarly great effect. She was the first Irish President to address the Oireachtas (in 1992 and 1995). She was the first Irish President to meet Queen Elizabeth II and, even more controversially, she shook hands in Belfast with Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin, the Irish Nationalist Republican Party and political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Robinson deftly used the symbolism of the Irish diaspora and the Irish famine to argue for the need for Ireland to support developing countries. She met with the Dalai Lama in April 1991 — against the express wishes of Charles Haughey, the Taoiseach or head of Parliament — and was the first head of state to travel to Somalia after its civil war and resulting famine in 1992, as well as the first to travel to Rwanda after its civil war and genocidal campaign in 1997. Her Somalia trip began a series of trips to Africa intended to shine a light on the continent’s long-standing problems with famine and genocide (Robinson 1992).

One imagines that Robinson must have found it incredibly satisfying to be the President who signed into law two bills that she had fought for throughout her political career: a law to fully liberalize the availability of contraceptives, and a law to fully decriminalize homosexuality.

Robinson’s term in office was the fruition and pinnacle of her long career in Irish politics to liberalize both Irish social attitudes and Irish law. Her time as President has had a profound and lasting affect on Ireland. “She’ll always be remembered as the woman who changed the Irish Presidency forever” (TG4 Irish Language Television 2007).

Robinson resigned from the office of President on 12 September 1997, several months before the end of her term, to take up her appointment as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She would now take her work for civil rights to the world stage.

Building a Mandate for Human Rights in the United Nations

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was created by the UN General Assembly in 1993 to chair the UN Human Rights Council and coordinate human rights activities across the UN system (“Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights” 2009). As the second UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Robinson gave the office stature; during her term of office she devoted considerable emphasis and energy to integrating human rights into the other activities of the UN; strengthening human rights monitoring in conflict areas; connecting climate change, human rights and gender; and expanding on the idea that human rights are not confined to the civil and political spheres alone, but apply also to economic and social life.

Her time as High Commissioner was not without problems or controversies. She had to deal with human rights crises in East Timor, Tibet, Middle East, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Chechnya. At the 2001 “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,” held in Durban, South Africa, there were clashes over Israel’s handling of Palestine and Palestinians, especially at a parallel meeting of non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) (United Nations 2001). The United States and Israel walked out of the Durban conference over a draft resolution that, in their opinion, singled out Israel for criticism and likened Zionism to racism. Even though Robinson spoke out against the clashes and refused to accept the final NGO statement on the Durban Conference (Realizing Rights 2009), her reputation suffered; pressure from the US administration after Durban may have been a contributing factor in her decision not to stand for a second term as High Commissioner. According to Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, “Mary Robinson paid a price for her willingness to stand up to powerful governments that violate human rights. She has set a standard of candour and strength for future High Commissioners, and we are sad to lose her as an ally.”  She stepped down from her post as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2002.

Beyond the United Nations

Since 2002, Robinson has not slowed down in her drive to be, as US President Barack Obama declared when he awarded her the 2009 Medal of Freedom, “an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored” (Obama 2009). She has continued her international human rights mission and has in fact expanded her advocacy. After stepping down as High Commissioner for Human Rights, among other activities, she founded Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative ( and currently serves as that organization’s President. Its mission is to make “human rights the compass which charts a course for globalization that is fair, just and benefits all” (Realizing Rights 2002).

Robinson has served as Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, since 1998, and as Honorary President of Oxfam International since 2002. She is the former Chair of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a founding member and former Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, and a member of the Elders Group of World Peacemakers, whose ranks include ex-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and former US President Jimmy Carter. Since January 2009, Robinson has been head of the International Commission of Jurists.


By all measures, Mary Robinson has led an extraordinary, charmed life of purpose. She has used her brain, heart, and various offices as levers to fight for those in her own country and around the world who lack a voice or a stage from which to raise that voice. She has always sought to use law as an instrument for social change. President Barack Obama’s words in presenting Robinson with the Medal of Freedom may best sum up her life and work:

For Mary Robinson, the fight to end discrimination and suffering is an urgent moral imperative. She has been a trail-blazing crusader for women’s rights in Ireland and a forceful advocate for equality and human rights around the world. Whether courageously visiting conflict-stricken regions, or working to inject concern for human rights into business and economic development, Mary Robinson continues this important work today, urging citizens and nations to make common cause for justice (Staunton 2009).

Photograph: In the public domain.

For her life’s work as a fierce and tireless human rights advocate in Ireland and around the world, Mary Robinson has received many awards and honors. Among the awards conferred upon her are the 1997 North-South Prize — awarded annually by the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe to two public figures who are recognized for their deep commitment, outstanding achievements, and the hope that they have generated in the field of protection of human rights; the 2002 Sydney Peace Prize, for her outstanding work as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; the 2004 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award; the 2005 — and first — “Outspoken” award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC); and, last but certainly not least, the 2009 US Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given in the United States.

Robinson has brought the issues of human rights, democracy, and development together. In the process, she has brought human rights “to small places close to home” (Roosevelt 1958) as well as to the wider world.

This is not Robinson’s first visit to Stanford University. She was Herman Phleger Visiting Professor of Law at Stanford in 1995, delivered the 1999 Robert G. Wesson Lecture in International Relations Theory and Practice at the Freeman Spogli Institute, and delivered the 2003 Tanner Lecture in Human Values, co-sponsored by the Center for Ethics in Society and the Office of the President.

The title of her Stanford Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and the Arts is “Human Rights Strategies in the 21st Century.” This lecture will highlight her work at Realizing Rights in the areas of corporate responsibility and the right to health, decent work, and climate justice.

* * * * * *


Anonymous. 2008. Night Talk: An Interview With Mary Robinson (part 1). October 22.

Clifford, Michael. 2009. Profile: Mary Robinson — Here’s to You Mrs Robinson. Tribune Magazine, August 30.

Fay, Marie-Therese. 1999. Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs. Contemporary Irish Studies. London: Pluto Press. [library catalog record].

Finlay, Fergus. 1990. Mary Robinson: A President with a Purpose. Dublin, Ireland: O’Brien Press. [library catalog record].

Irish diaspora. (2010). In Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 20, 2010, from

Jones, Jack. 2001. In Your Opinion: Political and Social Trends in Ireland Through the Eyes of the Electorate. Dublin, Ireland: TownHouse and CountryHouse. [library catalog record].

O’Leary, Olivia, and Helen Burke. 1998. Mary Robinson: The Authorised Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton. [library catalog record].

O’Sullivan, Michael. 1993. Mary Robinson: The Life and Times of an Irish Liberal. Dublin, Ireland: Blackwater Press. [library catalog record].

Obama, Barack. 2009. President Obama Honors 2009 Medal of Freedom Recipients. Washington, D.C., August 12.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2009). In Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 14, 2009, from

Realizing Rights. 2002. Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative.

———. 2009. Medal of Freedom Conferred on Mary Robinson by President Obama. July 31, 2009.

Robinson, Mary. 1992. A Voice for Somalia. Dublin, Ireland: O’Brien Press. [library catalog record].

———. 1995. Address by Uachtarán na hÉireann Mary Robinson - 02 February, 1995 - Tithe an Oireachtais. Speech to Irish Parliament February 2, Oireachtas (Irish Parliament).

Roosevelt, Eleanor. 1958. In Your Hands. Speech at the United Nations, New York, March 27, 1958. Transcript at

Seanad Éireann. (2010). In Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 27, 2010, from

Staunton, Denis. 2009. Obama Presents Medal of Freedom to “Crusader for Rights” Robinson. Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), August 13, 2009. Available to the Stanford community from NewsBank.

TG4 Irish Language Television. 2007. Uachtaráin - Mary Robinson. TG4 Series on Past Irish Presidents.

United Nations. 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations, December 10, 1948.

———. 2001. Report of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Durban, 31 August-8 September 2001. Durban, South Africa: United Nations. [library catalog record].

Text by James Jacobs, International Documents Librarian.
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