Mary Robinson

The Journey to Peace: Finding Ourselves in the Other - March 17, 2004

Mary Robinson
March 17, 2004— College Park, Maryland
Sadat Lecture for Peace
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Dr. Sadat, President Mote, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends,

I am deeply honored to have been invited by Dr. Jehan Sadat and the University of Maryland to deliver this year’s Sadat Lecture for Peace, and to receive an honorary doctorate from this distinguished University. It is humbling to give a lecture established in the memory of President Anwar Sadat, a leader who demonstrated that peace is possible, even in the most difficult of circumstances, if there is vision, courageous leadership and bold action.

In this context of peace and conflict our thoughts go out to the victims of bombing outrages a few short days ago in Ashdod, Israel and those devastating bombs in Madrid just a week ago, aimed to kill and injure as many innocent civilians as possible. Yes, we were all on that train.

Language can be important in defining actions and in shaping reactions. I have always argued that terrorist bombings against civilian targets, no matter how appalling their scale, are not war but vile acts of criminality. Indeed, at a certain scale the perpetrators commit crimes against humanity under international law. The focus and determination of civilized nations to hunt down such criminals, their supply lines and money trails, should not be blurred by conferring on them the status of being at war. It has been disturbing to hear words like appeasement used to denigrate the democratic electoral process of the Spanish people, who have a long and stoic experience of combating terrorism.

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day and members of the Irish diaspora around the world and our many friends here in the United States are especially mindful of the complex, difficult, long-drawn-out steps in forging a peace process in Northern Ireland. The title I have chosen for my address is The Journey to Peace: Finding ourselves in the other. It reflects what, for me, was President Sadat’s great insight as a leader. He understood, in reaching out to the people of Israel that he was reaching out, not so much to a different nation or culture, but to a shared human desire for acceptance, security and dignity.

It is, I believe, that ability to acknowledge the equal dignity and rights of each person which is most lacking in our world today.

Despite the advances in technology and communications that link us more closely than ever before, there remains the reality of division at so many levels in our world. We see these divides between rich and poor, between women and men, between different religions or ethnic groups, between citizens and migrants. We know as well that these divides are at the core of so many of today’s conflicts.

In my experience, both as President of Ireland and as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, such divides were all too evident when I visited some of the globe’s most catastrophic conflict zones. I listened to civilian victims, government leaders and combatants alike in places both near to home, like Northern Ireland, and far away, such as Rwanda, Chechnya, Colombia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan.

A common thread in each situation was unwillingness on both sides to see the other, or the enemy, as an individual with hopes and dreams, and with equal rights. I saw how patterns of discrimination in a society drove wedges between communities. And, all too often, I saw how corrupt and undemocratic governments fueled intolerance and denied people basic rights, thereby precipitating dissent and rebellion.

But you might ask, if the problems and their consequences are so clear, why does it continue to be so difficult to act differently, and accept, as Maya Angelou put it in her wonderful poem, Human Family, that We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike?

I believe that getting at the answer requires, first of all, that we learn to deal more constructively with a very basic human emotion fear. As we all know, fear comes in many forms. Fear of difference, fear that economic or social position is threatened, fear that identity could be lost in an increasingly globalized world - all bring about a range of reactions, and if pushed to extremes, to hatred, intolerance and violence.

You can find signs of contemporary individual and group fear just by looking at public perceptions of current issues. Last year, for example, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published a survey conducted in 44 countries which revealed that, although people generally have a favorable view of increased economic connections commonly associated with globalization, sizeable majorities of those polled said their "traditional ways of life" were being threatened and agreed with the statement that "our way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence".

A similar finding can be seen in an EU poll released just last week which found that while the majority of Europeans agreed that there was an economic need for more immigrants, eighty percent still want a tightening of passport and other entry controls for foreigners as part of a European Union asylum and immigration policy. Clearly, fear is one of the drivers of such seemingly contradictory views. And unfortunately in Europe today there are politicians and political parties only too willing to exploit those fears.

If fear is a main factor, education and factual information provide a remedy. For example, how many people have really considered the demographic realities that developed economies are currently facing? Aging populations and changes in the workforce make it imperative that industrialized economies increase immigration if they are to sustain themselves.

Moreover, how many realize that money sent home by migrants to their families? In the form of remittances? Is a growing source of income that is vital to many countries? The International Monetary Fund reported that in 2002 alone remittances from migrants were around $100 billion, as compared with only $51 billion in global development assistance. How many more people would be forced to leave their homes if not for the remittances coming from their family members abroad?

As avenues for legal migration become more and more limited, would-be migrants have increasingly resorted to illegal entry and unauthorized stay. This has fuelled the activities of human smugglers and traffickers who show little respect for the humanity of their cargo. Unknown numbers have died in transit and those who do reach their destination often find themselves trapped in a cycle of abuse and exploitation - giving a new face to slavery in the modern era. They are part of a growing population of undocumented immigrants who find themselves vulnerable to exploitation in employment, to racist crime, and to security measures in the context of the ongoing war on terrorism. Can any of us say that we truly identify with the situations faced by millions of today’s migrants?

The public debate in most countries around migration has thus far been marked by negativity, hostility and fear of migrants. What is needed today is a new approach, anchored in human rights, that acknowledges both the potential problems and benefits for receiving and sending countries.

At the international level, a Global Commission on International Migration has been established to study these issues further and make policy recommendations to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005. I am pleased to be a member of this Commission which must seek to reframe in a more positive way the migration debate, to understand that the rights of people who have left their countries in search of greater human security must be protected and that governments both sending and receiving must be accountable. Last month, at the Commission’s first meeting in Stockholm, Commission members agreed that political leadership on this issue is vital.

In a speech at the White House last January to announce new proposals on US immigration policy, President Bush set out some of the problems that need to be addressed. The President noted: As a nation that values immigration, and depends on immigration, we should have immigration laws that work and make us proud. Yet today we do not. Instead, we see many employers turning to the illegal labor market. We see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy.

President Bush went on to say that the challenge was to make US immigration laws more rational, and more humane. I recognize the importance of focusing on working closely with Mexico as it is the source of at least three-fifths of the United States' undocumented immigrant population. At the same time, I would point out the need to reflect seriously on policies concerning those from other neighboring countries who seek refuge and economic opportunity in the United States. The present situation in Haiti comes to mind.

Present U.S. policy towards those seeking to flee Haiti risks violating obligations under international law. According to reports from U.S. based groups such as Human Rights First, Haitians currently interdicted at sea are not informed of their right to seek asylum and are not interviewed by any U.S. official to determine whether or not they are in danger of persecution if returned.

As difficult as a new inflow of refugees would be to manage, we should call on the government to recognize that no migrants should be returned to Haiti if the situation there is so dangerous that their safety cannot be assured.

Important as the current focus on migration is, it should not cause us to neglect other forms of discrimination and intolerance which persist in the world today. One of the most disturbing of these is anti-Semitism. Much recent media coverage of anti-Semitism has centered on the situation in Europe where synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been defaced and Jews have been physically attacked on the streets. While many in Europe will point out that the situation today is a complex one that cannot be easily equated with historical anti-Semitism on the continent, it is vital that Europeans take effective action to stop these reprehensible events.

Nor should we forget the anti-Semitic diatribes so common in the Middle East. Even in the United States, on some prestigious college campuses, there have been attempts to cast Israel as a pariah state and equate its actions with those of South African apartheid, a first step toward questioning Israel’s right to exist. Allow me to reflect briefly on an experience during my term as High Commissioner when I came face to face with such anti-Semitism. It was in a setting I had hoped would be one of tolerance and respect - The Durban World Conference against Racism.

I should give some brief background on the Conference for those of you who may not be familiar with this event which took place the first week of September 2001, just days before the terrible attacks on the U.S. on 9/11. The decision to hold this Conference, the third UN global forum to address the subject of racism, was taken by the General Assembly in 1997. It was decided that the Conference should address in a comprehensive manner all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related contemporary forms of intolerance, that it should be action-oriented and focus on practical measures to eradicate racism, including measures of prevention, education and protection and the provision of effective remedies for victims.

I should also explain my own role. At its session in 1998, the UN Commission on Human Rights requested the UN Secretary General to designate the High Commissioner for Human Rights as Secretary General of the World Conference. It is common for a Secretary General of a UN Conference to be a senior UN official who is mandated with the main responsibility for the preparations for and secretariat functions of the Conference.

The decision to hold this conference in Durban, South Africa was fitting given the country’s own legacy of racism and its inspiring example of reconciliation. As Secretary General of the Conference, I was determined to play a role in helping make it a global event which would encourage each society to ask itself hard questions. Is it sufficiently inclusive? Is it non-discriminatory? Are its norms of behavior based on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? How best could the Conference confront the many horrors of racism - from slavery to the Holocaust, from Apartheid to ethnic cleansing - and agree comprehensive measures to prevent them from happening again? To encourage positive thinking, I had earlier presented a Vision Statement of positive commitments, under the patronage of Nelson Mandela, which more than 80 Heads of State signed and which I hoped might influence the government debates.

Unfortunately, some participants, both inside and outside the Conference, wanted to make the conflict in the Middle East, which at the time had entered a new phase of violence, the principal focus of Durban. At the Non-Governmental Forum, a parallel meeting which, as is common practice at UN conferences, was also held in Durban to coincide with the inter-governmental discussions, some participants resorted to blatant anti-Semitic speech and activities to convey their message.

And so, at a Conference in which we were supposed to be defending human rights values, we found ourselves faced with appalling bigotry and intolerance. I and many others condemned such language and, in the circumstances, I refused to recommend the final NGO document to the Conference.

Meanwhile in the Conference itself, which was, of course, inter-governmental, attempts were also being made to insert unacceptable language concerning Israel which had first emerged? In brackets, and therefore not as agreed text - at the Asia regional preparatory meeting for the Conference which was held in Tehran in February 2001. I should point out here that, as is the practice in UN conferences, governments, during regional preparatory meetings, are entitled to place on the table for discussion issues they consider relevant. Such issues are then discussed and negotiated in a lengthy process that ultimately reflects a global consensus in the final document. Usually agreement is reached in the last hour of the final day!

The decision by the U.S. and Israeli governments to leave the Conference before its conclusion was regrettable because it occurred during intense efforts to remove the unacceptable language and make the event a success. In the end, all anti-Semitic language was successfully removed, but the terrible attacks of 9/11 three days later understandably prevented a considered appraisal of the Durban outcome.

Now, more than two years later, I find that many people want to understand what happened in Durban, yet few here in the United States are aware of the real progress that was actually made. The final Declaration and Program of Action are powerful tools for lobbying governments, educating people, empowering civil societies and establishing frameworks for dialogue. Their specific calls and strategies for countering anti-Semitism, challenging rising xenophobia and protecting minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants and other vulnerable groups should be used and not disregarded out of hand.

Equally important, Durban created an opportunity for victim groups around the world, many of whom had been without a voice on the world stage, to articulate their concerns and engage their governments in a new and powerful way. Groups representing the Roma, the African-Descendant communities in Latin America, migrants, the Dalits of India and many other marginalized peoples found in Durban an energizing place to forge new alliances and strengthen grassroots efforts to address the problems they faced at home.

Perhaps what people in the U.S. most want to know is: what lessons can we learn from the Durban experience in countering anti-Semitism today? I would say, first, that governments everywhere must acknowledge that anti-Semitism is a virulent form of racism and that anti-Semitic acts need to be seen as violations of international human rights law. Its governments need systematically to monitor and report on hate crimes, and to adopt aggressive measures to prosecute those who are responsible.

Second, I believe we must all be vigilant in distinguishing legitimate criticism of acts by the Israeli security forces which have raised serious and legitimate human rights concerns - from the anti-Semitism that masquerades as concern. While rightly condemning suicide attacks and other assaults against civilians, the global community must set and honor clear lines in the debate about current Israeli practices with respect to the Palestinians.

Supporters of Israel need to recognize that criticisms of Israeli policies and practices are not in and of themselves anti-Semitic. Many human rights groups here and elsewhere are sharply and I believe rightly - critical of some of Israel’s practices, such as targeted killings, based on the application of universally accepted international human rights norms. The Jewish community should engage in this discussion, and use its influence to challenge the government of Israel whenever its policies and security forces violate these international standards.

At the same time, those who advocate for the rights of Palestinians must ensure that their criticisms and related actions do not become broadside attacks against Jews and the Jewish State. It is at this point that they become racist. The conflict in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians -- and by extension much of the Arab world -- will become even harder to address if the rhetoric continues in this way; if anger against Israel continues to spill over into broader patterns of antagonism against Jews, and if the speech devolves into outright racism and calling into question Israel’s right to exist.

And just as there has been a rise in anti-Semitism, so also, in the aftermath of 9/11, there has been a sharp increase in Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment. Families and even whole communities live in fear or endure new levels of hostility. Students are unable to obtain visas, academics cannot attend conferences and people worry about traveling out of the country and being unable to return.

All of this leads me to a final point that I believe we must look at together in an open and honest way. There are some, in this country and elsewhere, who suggest that human rights concerns, including the specific issues of discrimination I have been raising this evening, might get in the way of winning the peace or the war against terrorism. But experience throughout the world, including my own homeland of Ireland, demonstrates that this is wrong thinking. We must, and do, condemn and combat terrorism. But there can be no stable peace, no true human security without human rights and real public participation. There can be no true enjoyment of human rights by all where some are excluded by discrimination and prejudice.

Can the future be different? Can we come to accept greater shared responsibility for realizing the rights which we proclaim as being basic to a life of dignity for every individual?

Let me share with you the deep sense of hope and encouragement I experienced just last week in Ireland. In a hotel near the border with Northern Ireland I had been invited to address a conference of local community groups from areas such as North Belfast and North Dublin where local people over several months had been working through a rights-based approach to their problems. The theme of their conference was participation and the practice of rights in making connections and owning outcomes.

I met senior citizens from both communities, and women from the Shankill Protestant and the Falls Catholic women’s centers in Belfast. I met youth workers, former prisoners and community activists, all engaged in a conscious attempt to relate human rights standards to their local experience in poor housing estates and inner city environments. In the process, they had forged close friendships across the religious and political divides of the past. They were living Eleanor Roosevelt’s philosophy, that if human rights are to matter at all they must matter in small places close to home. It isn’t easy, they told me, but the experience has bonded us together. I am also encouraged by examples of innovative thinking here in the United States. Some of you may be aware of a report issued last year by the Migration Policy Institute, titled America’s Challenge which, among other recommendations, proposes the creation of an independent national commission on integration to address the specific challenges of national unity presented by post-September 11 events and actions. The report recommends that such a commission should be guided by the principle that the long-term interests of the nation lie in policies that strengthen the social and political fabric by weaving into it, rather than pulling out of it, all immigrant and ethnic communities. In the post-September 11 world, this means paying special attention to the experiences of Arab and Muslim communities, as well as to South Asian communities who are sometimes mistaken to be Muslim or Arab.

The report calls for new policies that consciously and systematically prevent stigmatization of Muslim and Arab communities and actively see them as adding to the social, political, and security strengths of the country. It highlights the importance of educational instruction about Islam and Muslims in schools and workplaces and encourages interfaith dialogue at national and local community levels.

The report points out that promoting tolerance and pluralism is a huge challenge.

Like any other ethnic or religious minority, the Muslim population alone cannot dispel the prejudices about its communities and religion. In the end, it is up to all of us, including our governments, to share this responsibility, to find the other.

I conclude with a simple truth which President Sadat understood so well: whether our world becomes a more brutal or a more peaceful place, rests in our own hands. Human rights have become the world’s common benchmark for justice but they have yet to become our common framework for action. In giving his life for peace Anwar Sadat gave inspiration to generations to come. Yes, the challenges ahead are formidable, the familiar catalogue of problems and future obstacles remains to be faced. Yes, we have a long road to travel before human rights will be secured for all. But I am convinced that this is a time when civil society world-wide can make its voice heard as never before.

If we can overcome doubts and fears, if we can build on shared values and learn to recognize ourselves in the other, this century can, after such a tragic beginning, become one of human development and human security for all - a century of human rights and peace.

Thank you, Dr. Sadat, for your vision in keeping alive your husband’s ideals.

Robinson, Mary. 2004. "Remarks by the Honorable Mary Robinson." Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace & Development.