April 8, 2013
‘Everybody Matters’ mirrors an Irish woman and world humanitarian named Robinson
By Peter F. Stevens
“Everybody matters” – surely those are two words with which countless people agree. What truly matters, however, is how few live up to those words. That precept is not only the title of Mary Robinson’s compelling new autobiography, but also the core conviction that has guided virtually every step of her life on the world stage.
By any measure, Mary Robinson is a remarkable public servant and bona-fide humanitarian. She was the first woman president of Ireland, from 1990 to 1997, and then served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002. The honorary president of Oxfam International since 2002, she has devoted herself to championing such causes and groups as the GAVI Alliance, which vaccinates children across the globe, and the Council of Women World Leaders. She is also a member of the Elders, global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela. Her unstinting humanitarian work has garnered her the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Indira Gandhi and Sydney Peace Prizes. In Everybody Matters, Robinson, who lives with her husband, Nick Robinson, in Dublin and Mayo, vividly and forthrightly recounts her own life and her struggle to make the world a fairer, more humane place through tireless, relentless advocacy of human rights. Robinson, unlike most who write their “true” story, does not cast herself in a hazy hagiography of good deeds and self-serving triumphs. To the contrary, the reader always gets the strong sense that no matter how many human-rights successes she has spearheaded, she believes she has barely scratched the proverbial surface. The book’s clear, skillful prose gently exhorts one to believe that he or she can make a difference in ways great or small.
In rendering her life, Robinson also shows a deft narrative hand.
Robinson was born in 1944, the only girl among five children in a devout Catholic family. At first, she considered becoming a nun; instead, she went on to become a lawyer and activist who assailed entrenched unjustness and inhumanity – whether it lay in government, politics, or even the Catholic Church, as well as her own family. As a dogged and brilliant lawyer, she won milestone civil-rights cases for women, the poor, gays, and minorities; in two decades in the Irish Senate, she was a progressive voice against traditional prejudices and outdated laws. Taking on the Church, she helped legalize contraception, illegal without a prescription in Ireland until 1985.
In 1990, she stunned the Irish political establishment by winning election as the nation’s first woman president. She was the first Irish president to travel officially to Britain and met with Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace, a meeting rife with symbolic significance.
As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Robinson fought to bring global attention and help to victims of war, natural disasters, and brutal, repressive governments. Today, Robinson, having returned to her native Ireland, leads the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice in an effort to help populations most affected by climate change.
Everybody Matters provides a riveting, thought-provoking, and introspective yet worldly examination of a remarkable woman and her life, but always in a way that shows that the author’s foremost concern remains those who suffer across the globe. For anyone familiar with Robinson and with Irish history, it will come as no surprise that she counts 19th-century reformers Daniel O’Connell – “The Great Liberator” – and Michael Davitt, the Land League crusader, along with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, as powerful influences in her thinking and causes.
For this reviewer, a passage in Chapter 14 – Bearing Witness – embodies Mary Robinson’s personal and public philosophy. She opens with three lines from “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” by Derek Mahon:
They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Robinson, recalling her time at the UN, then writes:
“Throughout my time in office I had to think constantly about how a small and underfunded office could make an impact on advancing human rights and holding governments to account where there was wide- scale impunity. I realised that I could play a significant role by being close to the victims, bringing out their accounts, which was why so much of my time as high commissioner was spent travelling to many of the most troubled regions of the planet, where people’s rights were being violated and they longed for somebody to alert the world to what was happening to them.
In all, I made 115 trips to more than 70 countries during five years, almost always with the idea of helping to amplify the voices of victims, helping them to feel that somebody was listening. It brought home to me the power of the act of bearing witness. This was something I had encountered when I visited Somalia as president of Ireland. The act of witnessing is neither easy nor as forthcoming as might be expected. We turn away so often…
“...Yet I felt that to listen, bear witness, and respect the humanity of those I was listening to, and report back to a jaded world, was a start. I wanted to nurture a sense that the United Nations understood that these voices mattered.
Mary Robinson has rarely turned away, and as this important book reminds us, neither should we. Everybody Matters is that rarest of memoirs – it does matter.
Everybody Matters, by Mary Robinson, Walker & Company, hardcover, ISBN-10: 0802779646, 336 pages, $26.