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Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson to Speak at April Great Conversations

Law School Dean David Wippman will interview noted human rights activist, former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, and former Irish president Mary Robinson.

ROBINSON2fOCUS.jpgA groundbreaking politician and lifelong crusader for human rights, Mary Robinson has not had a career free from controversy. But, then again, as David Wippman, dean of the U of M Law School says, "A human rights advocate holding a high-profile office must sometimes take principled but unpopular positions."

Wippman, who is himself a respected authority on international law, human rights, and ethnic conflict, will interview Robinson for the April 7 Great Conversations at the U of M Coffman Memorial Union, sponsored jointly by the College of Continuing Education and the Law School. "Mary is arguably one of the world's leading figures on human rights issues," he says. "She breathed new life into the Irish presidency. In her role in the U.N. and beyond, she pioneered new approaches to human rights and rule of law issues. I think this will be an inspiring and educational conversation."

The daughter of two doctors, Robinson was educated at the University of Dublin (Trinity College), King's Inns Dublin, and Harvard Law School. She was a faculty member at Trinity College from 1968 to 1990 (where she and her husband founded the Irish Centre for European Law); a member of both the Irish and English Bars; and served as a member of the Irish Senate for 20 years.

In 1990, Robinson became the seventh (and first female) president of Ireland. She was also the first person to hold the post who was not a member of Fianna Fáil (the dominant political party in the Republic of Ireland since the 1930s).

During her tenure as president, Robinson took a much more prominent role than some of her predecessors, making her office much more visible and symbolically significant--a move that earned her both accolades and criticism. She resigned the presidency in 1997, shortly before the designated end of her term, to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a position she held until 2002.

A dedicated champion for human rights, Robinson has sought to use law as an instrument for social change throughout her career, whether as an academic, a barrister, or a legislator and diplomat.

During her time in the senate, she campaigned for many social issues, including the right for women to sit on juries, for the legal availability of contraception, and for the right for women to retain their civil service positions after marriage.

As president, Robinson was the first head of state to visit Somalia after it suffered from civil war and famine in 1992; she was also the first to visit Rwanda in 1994, after the genocides.

Upon taking the mantle as High Commissioner for the U.N., Robinson pushed to make the post one of active advocacy, as opposed to a largely administrative and bureaucratic one. She made it her priority to implement the Secretary-General's reform proposal to integrate human rights into all the activities of the United Nations.

In her first year alone, Robinson traveled to Rwanda, Colombia, and Cambodia, among other countries. She became the first high commissioner to visit Tibet; and also worked to strengthen human rights monitoring in conflict areas such as Kosovo, Yugoslavia.

Despite praise from former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who credited her with "putting human rights on the map," her views did not always make her popular. She called out the Irish system of permits for non-EU immigrants as "bonded labor"; and she criticized the United States' use of capital punishment, as well as for violating human rights in its war on terrorism. Her role as moderator of the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, also drew fire from many in the United States because of the conference's perceived anti-Semitism.

Says Wippman, "In her role as high commssioner, Mary Robinson chose to be an outspoken advocate and champion of human rights. In doing so, she raised the visibility of her office and its impact but also raised the ire of some states and career diplomats."

Robinson left her post shortly after the start of her second term, in 2002. After leaving the UN, she founded Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, a nongovernmental agency dedicated to equitable international trade, access to health care, migration, women's leadership, and corporate responsibility. Following the planned end of that agency, she returned to Ireland to serve as the head of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice.

She was also a founding member of the Council of Women World Leaders, served as honorary president of Oxfam International, is a member of Nelson Mandela's organization The Elders, and was a member of the Club of Madrid.

The recipient of many honors and awards, Robinson received Amnesty International's 2004 Ambassador of Conscience award for her human rights work, and in 2009, she received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The upcoming Great Conversations will allow Robinson to talk about many of her roles and responsibilities throughout the years, something Wippman is very enthusiastic about. "Mary Robinson has long believed that law can be an instrument for social change, and that marginalized people can--and should--have a voice," he says.

Concludes Wippman, "She's been a pioneer in women's rights, reproductive rights. She understands the practical importance of ethical globalization. She can speak to the responsibility and accountability of leadership. Her appeal covers a lot of disciplines and fields of studies (and yes, she's not been without controversy), and it should make for an exciting evening."

The LearningLife Great Conversations featuring Mary Robinson and David Wippman will be April 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Great Hall of Coffman Memorial Union on the U of M Minneapolis campus

The cost is $20 for the general public and $15 for U of M faculty, staff, students, Law School alumni, and members of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association, Learning Circle, MinnPost.com, and Minnesota Public Radio. As the event replaces the final Headliners of the season, Headliners series tickets will be honored at the event.

Complete details for the event, including full event description, speaker bios, and ticket sales and discount information, are available on the LearningLife Web site.

Media sponsors of LearningLife are MinnPost.com and Minnesota Public Radio.

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