Mary Robinson
Stanford Humanities Center




Full text of Mary Robinson’s
Inaugural Speech as President of the Republic of Ireland

Robinson on Human Rights

... Human freedom is that precious space secured by standards, laws, and procedures that defend, protect and enhance human rights. We are all custodians of those standards. As the Vienna Declaration in 1993 stated, “Human rights and fundemental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings.”


My own approach to human rights is based on an inner sense of justice. Perhaps that is part of me because I am from Ireland and have my roots in a past of struggle for freedom, of famine, and of dispersal of a people. Perhaps also it derives from my experiences as a lawyer and politician and, more recently, as a President privileged to visit and be a witness to profound suffering and deprivation in countries such as Somalia and Rwanda.


My responsibility as U.N. High Commissioner is to adopt and to foster a rights-based approach across the whole spectrum of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights; to promote and protect the realization of the right to development and specifically to include women’s rights as human rights, as we were reminded by the 1995 Beijing conference.


In a practical way, human rights has become a core value in the work of the United Nations — human rights imperatives can and should be injected into every aspect of the organization's work ... and I do not exclude those agencies that appear purely technical. The International Telecommmunications Union has a crucial role in ensuring that people in the least developed countries can join the information revolution. (p.4-5, 9)

(From “Realizing Human Rights: ‘Take hold of it boldly and duly...’”
Oxford University Romanes Lecture 1997, Oxford, United Kingdom, 11 November 1997.
In A Voice for Human Rights: Mary Robinson, Kevin Boyle, ed.)



From Mary Robinson’s Previous Lectures at Stanford:

I’m reminded, not for the first time, of a wonderful moment in W. B. Yeats’s Autobiographies when he speaks of his political apprenticeship in Ireland. It was the time of Charles Stewart Parnell, of the start of the Gaelic League, of the beginnings of the Literary Movement. A conviction came over Yeats — so he tells us — that Ireland was, at that moment, “soft wax.” That it was going to remain “soft wax” for some years to come. It’s an image of hope and change and I put it before you today because it suggests the possibilities of identifying a historic moment, a moment when, despite all the difficulties, it seems that we can change things. When situations no longer seem fixed. When the unyielding, the durable, the intractable suddenly yields. We have a deeply troubled world, anxious about human security and possibly on the brink of a war with unpredictable consequences. For all the hardships and dangers of our particular political moment, there is that element of the pliable and possible about it — if we can change our minds and our hearts about what needs to be done and our responsibility to do it. And what I want to talk about today is that shared responsibility.

— “Human Rights and Ethical Globalization.”
Tanner Lecture on Human Values delivered at Stanford University February 12-14, 2003

I believe what is needed is more dialogue about values, such as human security. But those discussions require a common language of respect and solidarity. Equally important, that language must be able to carry the moral and legal force of the international community. It must be able to manage competing claims and embrace gender issues and the diversity of human experience. The language that I believe can meet these tests is that of the international human rights standards that have been developed over the past half century.

Our ability to be conversant in this language will require a shift in thinking to recognize people in need as individuals with rights, with valid claims, rather than objects of care, benevolence, and charity. It will also require a shift in the relative importance that governments, who have committed themselves to these standards, place on ensuring their implementation. Finally, such a shift in thinking will require agreement on some sharing of responsibilities for solving global problems among governments, international bodies, the business sector, and civil society.

— “Human Rights and Ethical Globalization.”
Tanner Lecture on Human Values delivered at Stanford University February 12-14, 2003

But constitutions manage to thrive, as well as merely to survive, when they master the tricky juristic knack of keeping their old words and apparently antiquated phrases in constant touch with the spirit of successive ages. How this is achieved, this magic of constitutional growth, is through a complex interplay between formal amendment, legislative action and imaginative judicial interpretation. As regards this last element - the role of the judges - it is clear that Ireland owes an enormous debt to the United States. It was to the pioneering creativity of the Warren Court of the late 1950s and early 1960s that our own Supreme Court in Dublin looked when it began in the mid 1960s to fashion our 1937 Constitution into the modern rights-based document that it is today. The Irish judges learned then from their American contemporaries, just as earlier generations of American colonists had learned about the control of power from such continental scholars as Montesquieu and Rousseau, and just as both you Americans and we Irish had learned about representative government from the British when our respective founders were planning our states. This process of learning from each other is at least as old as our nations, and its role in our development as nations has been incalculably beneficial.

— “Constitutional Shifts in Europe and the United States: Learning from Each Other.”
Address by the President of the Republic of Ireland, Her Excellency Mary Robinson,
on the Occasion of the 1995 Herman Phleger Lecture. Stanford University, 18 October 1995



From the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights:

Mary Robinson often quotes from, and even centers her talks around, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, primarily its Preamble, Article I and Article XXIX. (Source:


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,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Article I:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Article XXIX:

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

. ..

Selected by James Jacobs, International Documents Librarian,
Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources


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