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Reviewed by:
  • Mary Robinson, A Voice for Human Rights
  • William Schabas (bio)
Mary Robinson, A Voice for Human Rights ( Kevin Boyle ed., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) xix, 427 pp.

Mary Robinson was so much more than "a voice" for human rights. The title of this seminal collection of her speeches and writings is all too modest. She was both inspiring and visionary, an admired and authoritative leader who transformed a decisive post within the United Nations that had suffered from uninspired direction in its first years. Although Mary Robinson was not the first High Commissioner, we can barely remember the name of the man Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed for the job in 1994. Reflecting upon the legacy of a half decade as High Commissioner for Human Rights, her place in the human rights pantheon, alongside Eleanor Roosevelt and René Cassin, can hardly be disputed.

Kevin Boyle, who served as senior advisor during Mary Robinson's final year in the Palais Wilson ("the house," as its inhabitants like to call it), has assembled this important anthology. A great scholar in his own right, his elegant contributions to some of these writings is unmistakable, as are those of his predecessor, Ronan Keating. Much thought has gone into organising these materials along thematic lines. They are supplemented with many useful footnotes, which point to supplementary sources and provide context to much of the material.

Following a concise introduction by Kevin Boyle, and a brief but warm preface by Kofi Annan, the book is organized around five thematic sections: Mary Robinson's personal vision, equality and non-discrimination, the mandate of the High Commissioner, institution building and future challenges. By far the longest of these concerns the mandate of the Office, although its seven chapters do not cover the subject comprehensively. Their focus is largely on economic, social and cultural rights, no doubt largely reflecting Mary Robinson's own priorities.

As Professor Boyle explains, Mary Robinson was the first to argue the importance of extreme poverty within the scheme of international human rights. A credit to the validity of this perspective is its strong echo in the work of the current High Commissioner, Louise Arbour (who penned the book's afterward). It is intriguing that the two great modern High Commissioners, both of them Western lawyers, have espoused such a "third world" view of international human rights. It would perhaps have been more predictable that they would embrace a more typically "European" discourse with its emphasis upon civil and political rights, and both have surprised us. The classic human rights issues, for example torture and capital punishment, seem to have ceded their place in this collection of Mary Robinson's writings in favor of developments on the rights of persons with disabilities, women's equality, education and the right to development. To cynics who thought the Vienna Declaration's entrenchment of indivisibility is insincere or ineffective, this volume offers a potent antidote.

Mary Robinson presided over the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal [End Page 209] Declaration of Human Rights, on 10 December 1998. References to that seminal instrument pervade the speeches and articles. She speaks of its "benign influence throughout the planet," and its role as a "constitutional instrument." Mary Robinson regularly reminds us of the Declaration's normative reach, and its attention to economic, social and cultural rights. She is also, as the book makes clear, a fan of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose influence on the text of the Declaration and thus on the complexion of modern human rights can never be gainsaid.

The book will stand as a valuable reference work, with a deserved place even in human rights libraries of limited proportions. People often ask "what are human rights?," or "what do human rights say about such-and-such?," but there are few places to which the may turn for authoritative answers delivered in a comprehensive and accessible manner. It is a function that this book fulfils admirably. In that sense, this collection consists of much more than the words of Mary Robinson. The book is a guide to the "state of the art" in human rights thinking, as expressed through the words of one of its foremost contemporary practitioners...


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pp. 209-211
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