by Barbara Black
Thanks to a year's organizational work by the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, made Concordia her only stop in Quebec on her recent Canadian tour.
Robinson's visit on November 26 included an hour-long public address and discussion period, followed by lunch in the Faculty and Staff Dining Room with guests, including Mayor Pierre Bourque.
She has been an enormously popular world figure since her days as Irish president, from 1990 to 1997. In this elected but non-partisan post, during a time of great sectarian tension in Ireland and the neighbouring North, she was seen as a remarkably sane, compassionate figure who excelled at forging links with people the world over. After her term as president was over, she was appointed to her present post at the United Nations.
Her talk at Concordia illustrated the delicate nature of her job. At first, listeners may have been struck by how bureaucratic her perspective appeared to be, but as she went on, she made it clear that at the level of the United Nations, influence -- moral suasion -- is the essential tool for change.
"I am a catalyst," she said several times, and illustrated how she works simply by naming the global trouble-spots she has visited. By going to a country as High Commission for Human Rights and listening sympathetically to the right people -- the indigenous activists, the women's groups, the non-governmental agencies -- Robinson becomes a visible symbol of the world's concern.
Her address at Concordia, sponsored by the centre for women's studies, focused on women's rights around the world. She spoke of visiting a shelter in Phnom Pen for women who have escaped from Cambodia's sex trade; of efforts in Japan to address the long-neglected "comfort workers" of the Second World War; of the requests from women in Tehran for more information about the UN charter of children's rights; of the need to work through fathers in some countries (because that is the only means of access) to improve the marriage rights of young girls; of visiting the first fragile network of Russian battered-women's shelters; of growing concern in South Africa about violence against women; and of the life-threatening character of some women's activism in Colombia.
In addition, Robinson said, she has been trying to mainstream human rights into all aspects of United Nations work, a process accelerated by Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recent internal reforms.
The question period following her speech was another inventory of human rights issues and beleaguered regions: Iran, Afghanistan, Latin America, Algeria. One student wanted to know why the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, that groundbreaking manifesto written by Montrealer John Humphreys 50 years ago, does not defend the rights of gays and the disabled. Robinson replied gently that though some of its language may be "a bit dated," the Declaration was a revolutionary document in its time.
Robinson had come to Concordia from appearances in St. John's, Toronto and Ottawa, and went on from Montreal to a big human rights conference in Edmonton.
Her only reference to Canadian government policies in her Concordia speech was to praise Canada's leadership in establishing the International Criminal Court. However, she did mention a group of women in St. John's who were deeply concerned with both local and international poverty issues.
Later, in Alberta, she visited an impoverished Native community that should be rolling in oil revenues. Also, while the Edmonton conference was in progress, another UN body in Geneva was criticizing Canada for its human rights record, saying that government cutbacks have deepened the problems of our own poorest citizens.
Mary Robinson's visit to Concordia provided an opportunity to try a WebCast -- that is, a live broadcast over the Web -- of her speech. People who could not attend the hour-long event in person had the chance to log onto the Concordia Web site (www.concordia.ca) and view it on their computer screens, provided they had up-to-date hardware and the latest version of RealPlayer.
The technical end was organized by Michael Keeffe, of Instructional and Information Technology Services (IITS), and Andrew McAusland, of the Faculty of Arts and Science.
McAusland said that more than 250 people logged on during the event -- 40 per cent watched the simultaneously translated French version, and 15 per cent of the hits were from outside of Canada.
"The quality of the WebCast was outstanding compared to others I've seen," McAusland said. "We received several e-mail messages from people responding most favourably, and who were appreciative of the effort."
The University already owned the equipment it used, and the Canadian government provided the simultaneous translation free of charge, he said.
"It was worth it," McAusland added. "It gave us good exposure and got groups within the University working together."
Evelyne Abitbol, from Public Relations, helped the Simone de Beauvoir Institute organize the event and the content on the Web site. She was ecstatic when she was able to arrange for several other sites to make a link to Concordia's. These included the United Nations, the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and McGill University. - Eugenia Xenos