Mary Therese Winifred Robinson, seventh and first female President of Ireland (1990-1997), is born on May 21, 1944 in Ballina, County Mayo. Robinson also serves as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 until 2002.
Robinson first rises to prominence as an academic, barrister, campaigner, and member of the Irish Senate (1969–1989). Running as an Independent candidate nominated by the Labour Party, the Workers’ Party, and independent senators, Robinson defeats Fianna Fáil‘s Brian Lenihan and Fine Gael‘s Austin Currie in the 1990 presidential election becoming the first elected president in the office’s history not to have had the support of Fianna Fáil.
Robinson is widely regarded as a transformative figure for Ireland, and for the Irish presidency, revitalising and liberalising a previously conservative, low-profile political office. She resigns the presidency two months before the end of her term in office in order to take up her post in the United Nations. During her UN tenure, she visits Tibet in 1998, the first High Commissioner to do so. She criticises Ireland’s immigrant policy and criticises the use of capital punishment in the United States. She extends her intended single four-year term by a year to preside over the World Conference against Racism 2001 in Durban, South Africa. The conference proves controversial, and under continuing pressure from the United States, Robinson resigns her post in September 2002.
After leaving the UN in 2002, Robinson forms Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative, which comes to a planned end at the end of 2010. Its core activities are fostering equitable trade and decent work, promoting the right to health and more humane migration policies, and working to strengthen women’s leadership and encourage corporate social responsibility. The organisation also supports capacity building and good governance in developing countries. Robinson returns to live in Ireland at the end of 2010, and sets up The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, which aims to be “a centre for thought leadership, education, and advocacy on the struggle to secure global justice for those many victims of climate change who are usually forgotten – the poor, the disempowered, and the marginalised across the world.”
Robinson is Chair of the Institute for Human Rights and Business and Chancellor of the University of Dublin. Since 2004, she has also been Professor of Practice in International Affairs at Columbia University, where she teaches international human rights. Robinson also visits other colleges and universities where she lectures on human rights. Robinson sits on the Board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, an organisation which supports good governance and great leadership in Africa, and is a member of the Foundation’s Ibrahim Prize Committee. Robinson is an Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Human Rights and the Centre for the Study of AIDS at the University of Pretoria. Robinson serves as Oxfam’s honorary president from 2002 until she steps down in 2012 and is the honorary president of the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation EIUC since 2005. She is Chair of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and is also a founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders (2003-2009). Robinson was a member of the European members of the Trilateral Commission.
In July 2009, Robinson is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour awarded by the United States. In presenting the award to Robinson, U.S. President Barack Obama says, “Mary Robinson learned early on what it takes to make sure all voices are heard. As a crusader for women and those without a voice in Ireland, Mary Robinson was the first woman elected President of Ireland, before being appointed U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. When she traveled abroad as President, she would place a light in her window that would draw people of Irish descent to pass by below. Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering, but illuminated a better future for our world.”