On July 24, 1997 Robinson announces her intention to resign as President of Ireland. The Irish Government states that her announcement “was not unexpected” and wishes her “every success.” She resigns by addressing a message to the Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann and it takes effect at 1:00 PM on September 12.
Upon her resignation as President, the role of President is transferred to the Presidential Commission, which is comprised of the Chief Justice, the Ceann Comhairle, and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Éireann, from September 12 until November 11, 1997, when Mary McAleese is sworn in as the new President.
Media reports suggest that Robinson has been head-hunted for the post by Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan to assume an advocacy as opposed to administrative role, in other words to become a public campaigner outlining principles rather than the previous implementational and consensus-building model. The belief is that the post has ceased to be seen as the voice of general principles and has become largely bureaucratic. Robinson’s role is to set the human rights agenda within the organisation and internationally, refocusing its appeal.
Robinson is the first High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Tibet, making her trip in 1998. During her tenure she criticises the Irish system of permits for non-EU immigrants as similar to “bonded labour” and criticises the United States’ use of capital punishment.
In 2001, Robinson chairs the Asia Regional Preparatory Meeting for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related intolerances, which is held in Tehran, Iran. Representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish group, and the Baha’i International Community are not permitted to attend. Robinson wears a headscarf at the meeting in conformance to the Iranians edict that all women attending the conference must wear a headscarf. Women who do not wear the headscarf are criticized, which Robinson says plays into the hands of religious conservatives.
She extends her intended single four-year term by a year following an appeal by Secretary General Annan 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.