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Recognising a global call to action

Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN commissioner for human rights reflects on her many years of association with Concern. This article is featured in today's Irish Times supplement about Concern and its work.

I had long admired Concern’s work, so when I was contacted by Aengus and Jack Finucane about the grim situation in Somalia in 1992, I suggested that they and other aid agencies would come and visit me in Áras an Uachtaráin.

I confess we contrived that I would be invited by them on live TV to go to Somalia myself and help draw attention to the conflict there, which was also causing deaths from hunger in places like Baidoa.

What I saw there – starving children, destitute people, gross violations of human rights – affected me deeply and remains with me to this day. I said then that the world could not stand by as a people were destroyed. I called on the international community to stand up for the most basic human rights of the Somali people.

It saddens me to have to make that same plea today. Somalia has not had a functioning government in the intervening fifteen years, which has meant the complete absence of even basic health and other services. For much of this period, the world forgot Somalia.

The situation over the past year has deteriorated sharply in the wake of the conflict between the Transitional Federal Government (TFC) and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had taken power during 2006. At the end of that year, the UIC were overthrown by the TFG, backed by Ethiopian troops.

The escalating conflict has led to over one million people being displaced and 1.7 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Fighting in the capital, Mogadishu, has seen indiscriminate attacks on civilians from both government and rebel forces.

Women have been particularly vulnerable, with an increase in the number of rapes and gender based violence. Nutrition surveys in South Central Somalia point to rates of acute malnutrition reminiscent of the dreadful scenes I witnessed in 1992. Similar patterns of violence, displacement and human rights violations apply in other countries in the region.

In October last I visited Chad as part of an all-women delegation supported by The Elders, the group chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, established to assist countries in conflict and draw attention to global challenges.

Five of the women were from different African countries, including Asha Hagi Elmi Amin of Somalia, head of the Sixth Clan – the women’s clan she had formed so that women could participate in the peace talks there. We travelled from the capital N’Djamena to Eastern Chad, near the border with Darfur. Our delegation was supported by Oxfam, but I also met Concern workers on the ground, and received valuable briefing from Concern before going there. Our mission was to listen to the women, who with their families, had fled Darfur, or women displaced by the conflict in Eastern Chad itself – and to get their stories out.

It helped that the EU was preparing to send in a military force to protect those in the camps. We brought the women’s stories – and their desire to participate in peace talks and other political decisions – to the capitals of France, Germany and the UK, and ultimately to the UN Security Council.

Now that relative peace has been restored in the capital N’Djamena, it is vital that the EU force – including its Irish troop component – fulfils its mission on the ground in Eastern Chad. More recently, the situation in Kenya is deeply worrying. The violence has exposed dangerous ethnic divisions and longstanding economic and social inequalities.

If Kenya were to descend into more violence and political instability, it would have serious repercussions for the region and indeed for the wider African continent.

Kofi Annan’s success – together with fellow Elder Graça Machel, and Benjamin M’Kapa, former President of Tanzania – in bringing the rival factions together is of immense importance but it is only the first step in a long road towards stability.

If the problems in these countries have similar roots and character, so do possible solutions. Political leaders must be willing to compromise. The rights of civilians in conflict zones to protection under human rights law must be asserted. The international community has an important role in this. Over two years ago the General Assembly of the UN acknowledged that in certain circumstances there was a “Responsibility to Protect.”

Tomorrow in New York, I will attend the launch of a new Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. This new research and advocacy initiative aims to build greater acceptance of the responsibility to protect norm which was adopted by government leaders at the UN World Summit in 2005 and call attention to how it must apply in real-world crises.

This doctrine is a global call to action for the most basic of human rights, the right to life. Yet it is commonly misunderstood to be a doctrine of military intervention. The crisis in Kenya rightly shows that the primary role for outside actors is to help the state improve its security, protect human rights and provide civilian protection.

One part of these basic rights is the right to humanitarian assistance. That is where Concern plays its vital part. I have seen Concern’s work in many countries from Rwanda – which I visited in 1994 and 1995 – to many encounters during my term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

So often, when I was visiting places of conflict as far apart as Sierra Leone and East Timor – to assess the human rights situation, I would hear the Irish accents, the laughter, and benefit from the deep knowledge of the local culture talking with Concern workers on the ground.

I am aware both from the strong support group Concern has built in the US, and the high reputation it has with other international NGOs, that not only has it served the poorest and most marginalised in zones of conflict and situations of abject poverty, but the reputation of Concern has served the Irish people in a way which makes us proud. Long may the Concern team continue.”