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Mary Robinson: Trailblazer for Global Justice and Human Rights
Professor Siobhan Mullahy, MRIA
Professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights.
Niamh Ní Charra shows former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson and President of University of Galway, Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh items from the Mary Robinson archive from the Mary Robinson Centre in Ballina. Credit - Corinne Beatty
Global Impact Edition

Mary Robinson: Trailblazer for Global Justice and Human Rights

27 June 24
 | 15 MINS

It is not too strong to say that Mary Robinson’s life and achievements have been truly exceptional. From her early days as a pioneering barrister, to the Presidency of Ireland, the role of UN Commissioner for Human Rights, and her current role as Chair of the Elders, she has wholeheartedly given her energy to fighting injustice in all its forms, and pursuing peace and equality. In the face of often fierce opposition, she pushed through barriers and upended certainties, always speaking out for those whose voices were not being heard. Here, Professor Siobhan Mullally explores the life and times of a remarkable Mayo woman.

The pursuit of a radical human rights universalism has been at the heart of Mary Robinson’s career, as a courageous lawyer, legislator, Ireland’s first woman President, and on the international stage, as UN human rights commissioner, Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region, and Chair of the Elders.

In each of these roles, Mary Robinson has sought to realise the transformative potential of campaigns for legal change, and of feminist practice rooted in everyday life, in the places and spaces of exclusion and denials of rights.

Challenging discrimination

Mary Robinson has always been acutely aware of the impact of discriminatory laws on the lives of women and girls. Her legal practice challenged the everyday discrimination that confined women to harmful reproductive roles as bearers of culture, and repositories of tradition. To those who appealed to Ireland’s distinctive culture and moral sensibilities, she challenged exclusionary definitions of Irish culture, recalling the deeply gendered and racialised benefits of inclusion and burdens of exclusion. While much of human rights law addressed violations occurring in the public or political sphere, Mary Robinson challenged gendered boundaries between public and private, expanding the reach of tests of justice and rights to private and family life.

She was keenly aware of the potential of the EEC, as it then was, to break down the gendered inequalities of Irish employment law, and to expand women’s participation in paid employment. In 1988, she founded the Irish Centre for European Law, and served as its first Director. She was quick to highlight and express concern about democratic deficits within the EU. Ensuring participation in movements for expanded rights protection and reform, mobilisation for social change was at the heart of her activism.

By presenting the harms experienced as a result of systemic rights violations, Mary Robinson’s legal work revealed the failed promises of universal protection of rights. The case of Airey v Ireland led to one of the most important judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, securing the right to civil legal aid in family law. More particularly, the Court recognised that states must take positive action to ensure that human rights were not merely ‘theoretical or illusory, but practical and effective’.

The pursuit of a radical human rights universalism has been at the heart of Mary Robinson’s career, as a courageous lawyer, legislator [and] Ireland’s first woman President.

Prof Siobhán Mullally MRIA
University of Galway

Pursuing equality, human rights and climate justice

In so many landmark cases, Mary Robinson’s work contributed to reshaping the representation and participation of women in Irish society. In De Búrca v Attorney General, Robinson challenged the exemption of women from jury service as incompatible with the necessary diffusion of rights and duties in a modern democratic society.  Further legal challenges led to reforms, hard won, to secure equal treatment in social welfare law (the Hyland case 1988), and to challenge sex discrimination against married women in Irish taxation law (the Murphy case 1982).

At a time when we see expansion of free provision of contraception to women in Ireland, it is important to recall that access to contraception was achieved following a difficult struggle for equal rights. Mary Robinson as Senator advocated for repeal of Section 17 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935, which made it a crime to sell, or have for sale, or advertise contraceptives, and also categorised contraceptives as prohibited goods. She challenged censorship laws that limited access to information about contraception and family planning.

Restricting access to information, Mary Robinson knew well, was a strategy to limit women’s right to the highest attainable standard of health, including reproductive and sexual health. The case of Open Door and Dublin Well Woman v Ireland led to a finding that Ireland’s restriction on access to abortion information was an unjustified restriction on the right to information, posing a risk to the health of women who were seeking abortions at a later stage in their pregnancy, due to lack of access to information about abortion services.

As President of Ireland, commenting on the X case, in which a 14 –year- old girl, a rape victim, was prohibited from travelling with her parents to England for an abortion, she issued a statement on the “very deep crisis within ourselves”, calling for

“[..] the courage, which we have not always had, to face up to and to look squarely and to say ‘this is a problem we have got to resolve”.

Mary Robinson represented Senator David Norris, in a challenge to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and, “the existence in Ireland of laws which make certain homosexual practices between consenting adult men criminal offences.” 

The European Court of Human Rights found a violation of the right to private life, and drawing upon the words of Justice Henchy in the Supreme Court, recalled the “subtle but insidiously intrusive and wounding ways” that David Norris and others were denied the necessary expression of their human personality and ordinary incidents of citizenship.

It was that attention to the work of local communities, to everyday lives, that gave her a unique and too often neglected insight into how to work across divisions, conflict, and borders.

Prof Siobhán Mullally MRIA
University of Galway

In her statement at the opening of the 2001 Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, she stressed that success should be measured by whether or not the outcome brings effective remedies and relief to the victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, noting how closely contemporary forms of racism are bound up with the past.

Speaking at the Irish Centre for Human Rights in 2019, on the launch of the BCL Law and Human Rights programme, and our Human Rights law clinic, Mary Robinson challenged us to radically reform legal education to prioritise teaching on climate justice and the climate crisis. As always, her focus was on practical outcomes and meaningful change. In her campaigning for climate justice, Mary Robinson has highlighted the gendered impact of the climate crisis, calling for gender disaggregated data, and provision of climate finance as critically important to women who face discrimination in control of natural resources.  As one of the most prominent climate justice advocates globally, she has called on political leaders to act together to implement urgent, courageous measures to reverse the devastating, life-threatening, consequences of climate change. Climate justice, as she has argued so powerfully, requires a just transition, placing those most affected, at its centre.


Mary Robinson has always stressed the necessity of resisting appeals to crisis or emergency to justify denials of human rights.

Prof Siobhán Mullally MRIA
University of Galway

Working for peace

The pursuit of peace has been at the heart of Mary Robinson’s human rights advocacy. Commenting, as President of Ireland, on her public handshake with Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin, she noted that her role allowed her to meet people in their work at community level. It was that attention to the work of local communities, to everyday lives that gave her a unique, and too often neglected insight, into how to work across divisions, conflict, and borders.

Mary Robinson has always stressed the necessity of resisting appeals to crisis or emergency to justify denials of human rights. In the aftermath of the attacks on the US on Sept 11 2001, she recalled that human rights law was essential to prevent the use and abuse of emergency and security laws. As Chair of the Elders, Mary Robinson has raised her voice repeatedly to call for an end to the killing of civilians in Gaza and compliance with international humanitarian law. Commenting on the International Court of Justice’s preliminary ruling in South Africa v Israel, she has called on Israel to abide by the Court’s judgment and implement all the provisional measures with immediate effect, and called on Israel’s allies, in particular the United States, to respect the Court’s ruling and refrain from any statements or actions that would undermine the Court’s authority.  That her calls have not been heeded is a deep stain on the principle of humanity at the core of international law. Rather than accepting defeat, however, it is also a reminder of the necessity for continued activism, advocacy and courage to realise the universal promise of human rights and a just peace.


5 / 5. Vote count: 8

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