A lot of right-wing umbrage has been generated by the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former President of Ireland Mary Robinson (she also served as the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights). And much of it was presented in John “Blow ‘Em Up” Bolton’s Op-Ed in the Murdoch Street Journal on Monday…
Barack Obama’s decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson has generated unexpected but emotionally charged opposition. Appointed by then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as high commissioner for human rights in 1997-2002, Ms. Robinson had a controversial but ineffective tenure. (Previously, she was president of Ireland, a ceremonial position.)
To begin, I know it’s a little hypocritical for me to say this because I seldom referred to Dubya as “President Bush,” but Barack Obama does happen to be the 44th President of the United States, and I call Bolton’s refusal to acknowledge that at the beginning “two wrongs not making a right.”
Also, this Wikipedia article tells us more about what Robinson did in her “ceremonial” position as president of Ireland…
She invited groups not normally invited to presidential residences to visit her in Áras an Uachtaráin; from the Christian Brothers, a large religious order who ran schools throughout Ireland but had never had its leaders invited to the Áras, to G.L.E.N., the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network. She visited Irish nuns and priests abroad, Irish famine relief charities, attended international sports events, met the Pope and, to the fury of the People’s Republic of China, met Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama). She famously put a special symbolic light in her kitchen window in Áras an Uachtaráin which was visible to the public as it overlooked the principal public view of the building, as a sign of remembering Irish emigrants around the world. (Placing a light in a darkened window to guide the way of strangers was an old Irish folk custom.) Robinson’s symbolic light became an acclaimed symbol of an Ireland thinking about its sons and daughters around the world. Famously, she visited Rwanda where she brought world attention to the suffering in that state in the aftermath of its civil war. After her visit, she spoke at a press conference, where she became visibly emotional. As a lawyer trained to be rational, she was furious at her emotion, but it moved everyone who saw it. One media critic who had slated her presidential ideas in 1990, journalist and Sunday Tribune editor Vincent Browne passed her a note at the end of the press conference saying simply “you were magnificent.”
Browne’s comments matched the attitudes of Irish people on Robinson’s achievements as president between 1990 and 1997. By half way through her term of office her popularity rating reached an unheard of 93%.
In one of her roles as president, the signing into laws of Bills passed by the Oireachtas she was called upon to sign two very significant Bills that she had fought for throughout her political career. A Bill to fully liberalise the law on the availability of contraceptives, and a law fully decriminalising homosexuality and unlike Britain and much of the world at the time, providing for a fully equal age of consent, treating heterosexuals and LGBT people alike.
Bolton also blames Robinson for her “central organizing role as secretary general of the 2001 ‘World Conference Against Racism’ in Durban, South Africa. Instead of concentrating on its purported objectives, Durban was virulently anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and at least implicitly anti-American.”
Really? As Wikipedia notes here…
In the end, the Conference delegates voted to reject the language that implicitly accused Israel of racism, and the document actually published contained no such language.
Several countries were unhappy with the final text’s approach to the subject, but all for different reasons. Syria and Iran were unhappy because their demands for the language about racism and Israel had been rejected by the Conference, the latter continuing its insistence that Israel was a racist state. Australia was unhappy with the process, observing that “far too much of the time at the conference [had been] consumed by bitter divisive exchanges on issues which have done nothing to advance the cause of combating racism”. Canada was also unhappy.
The language of the final text was carefully drafted for balance. The word “diaspora” is used four times, and solely to refer to the African Diaspora. The document is at pains to main a cohesive identity for everyone of African heritage as a victim of slavery, even including those who may have more European than African ancestors. The “victim” or “victims” of racism and slavery (the two words occurring 90 times in the document) are defined in only the most general geographic terms. The word “Jewish” is only used once, alongside “Muslim” and “Arab”, and “anti-Semitism” is only used twice, once alongside its assumed counterpart of “Islamophobia” and once alongside “anti-Arabism”. The difficulty that this generates is that it is politically impossible to act when the 219 calls for action in the Programme are couched in such generalities that only the “countless human beings” that the document explicitly talks of can be identified.
Am I going to tell you that I’m a fan of the U.N. Human Rights Commission? No. But I think it’s ridiculous to blame Robinson for the intransigence of some of its member nations (besides, the first Durban Conference ended on September 8, 2001, and what transpired three days later pretty much made its recommendations moot).
Bolton also tells us the following…
During the Clinton administration’s (and NATO’s) air campaign against Serbia because of its assault on Kosovo, for instance, she opined that “civilian casualties are human rights victims.” But her real objection was not to civilian casualties but to the bombing itself, saying “NATO remains the sole judge of what is or is not acceptable to bomb,” which she did not mean as a compliment.
In fact, Ms. Robinson wanted U.N. control over NATO’s actions…
Maybe Robinson wanted the U.N. to have a say on the Kosovo bombing for the following reason (as noted here)…
NATO then helped establish the KFOR, a NATO-led force under a United Nations mandate that operated the military mission in Kosovo. In August–September 2001, the alliance also mounted Operation Essential Harvest, a mission disarming ethnic Albanian militias in the Republic of Macedonia.
So yeah, I think it would have been a good thing for NATO to coordinate with the Kosovo Force (operating with the U.N.’s blessing, as noted) on bombing decisions (hmm, what word describes my reaction that Bolton didn’t think of that, given that he was our former U.N. ambassador? Shocking? Incomprehensible? Truly, the mind boggles).
It should also be noted that Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League criticized Robinson’s Medal of Freedom Award here as follows…
Ms. Robinson has been quoted as saying, “On the Palestinian side, they are the victims, etc. On the Israeli side, they feel they are the victims, in some measure (“Democracy Now,” Pacifica Radio, Feb. 25, 2009). Because she has not moved away from her anti-Israel bias, she is not an “agent of change” and is undeserving of America’s highest civilian honor.
Foxman is referencing this program hosted by Amy Goodman, in which Robinson also said the following…
And there is a need, in the context of the Middle East, to have an understanding of the narrative, which is completely different on both sides. On the Palestinian side, they are the victims, etc. On the Israeli side, they feel they are the victims, in some measure. And there needs to be an ability to transcend that and set the course for addressing the deep issues that divide.
I was in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in early November, just before Gaza was completely closed off. We were looking at the role of women and strengthening their ability to be part of the voice. And I met some extraordinary Palestinian and Israeli women, and I hope that they will be able to link with (Middle East Special Envoy) George Mitchell in what he’s doing.
I was in Gaza as High Commissioner for Human Rights eight years before. Going back—first of all, the way in which the West Bank itself has been divided up, by the new settlements, which are, you know, very provocative and in many cases illegal; by roads that Palestinians can’t go on, but they have to find ways around; and by the wall—but when I went to Gaza, to be with people who were under siege for eighteen months, where there was a truce, which at that stage was due for possible renewal, but there had been no dividend. When we were in Northern Ireland and the IRA started to come into some kind of process, we encouraged them by having some kind of a dividend, some kind of a change in circumstances. There was none in Gaza.
I met poor farming women whose land had been bulldozed so they couldn’t farm. And they said, “We learned embroidery, but we’ve no thread. We learned to make candles, but we’ve no wax.” There was no activity. There was not enough food for families, not enough healthcare. We heard terrible stories about pregnant women dying at the border. And I saw—because I spent two hours going in and going out, I saw very sick people being treated like dirt. You know, you don’t treat people like that. It’s very dehumanizing. These young conscripts on the Israeli side do not treat the people going in and out as human beings. They treat them as potential terrible terrorists. And that’s the image. So we need to break all of that. And I think George Mitchell has the capacity to reach beyond and to start to make us aware that this is a human situation that has to be addressed.
I personally think that, even though Robinson didn’t say much about Hamas in the Goodman interview, she is clear headed enough to realize that nobody, including George Mitchell with all of his skill and experience, is going to change anything without Hamas deciding that it cares more about a political solution than it does about terrorism (and for good measure, Robinson’s award was supported by an Israeli human rights group, as noted here).
I think Mary Robinson is a thoroughly deserving recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award previously politicized by Bolton’s former boss who had no hesitation about awarding it to his cronies who brought us war without end in Iraq and presided over the worst foreign-based terrorist attack on our soil.
(Also, please note that I made it through this entire post without a reference to that song by Simon and Garfunkel).