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How Human Rights Efforts And The Fight Against Climate Change Are Related


It's a disorienting year in many democracies, and we are trying to define this moment. Last week, writer Francis Fukuyama talked about democracy in crisis.


FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: People need to pay attention. They need to participate. The problem, I think, really is in the polarization that there's so much anger and distrust between the two sides of this divide.

MARTIN: Today, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and United Nations Human Rights Commissioner - she sees a moment of self-interest. Less than three years ago, a global climate agreement showed global cooperation. Now, she says, much has changed.

MARY ROBINSON: It's quite a strange moment because we had a very strong multilateral set of frameworks that were adopted. And then somehow we seem to be now going into identity nationalism in a narrow sense, hate speech, wanting to do down the other or fear of the other.

MARTIN: People seem to be running away from global cooperation, she says. I asked Mary Robinson if she sympathizes with the average workers around the globe who feel global institutions and agreements have left them behind.

ROBINSON: I do because I think we do have a very, very unequal world, and it's getting worse. And that is breaking down the trust for a lot of young people who are very cynical about the political framework because they see the countries that preach democracy and human rights being countries largely responsible in their view for the problems in their region, you know, for wars like especially the war in Iraq and what happened in Libya and what's happening now in Syria and the lack of sort of honest discourse about responsibility.

I think the frameworks that we saw adopted in 2015 are the answer, are the way forward. How do we get back on track to that?

MARTIN: How do you make that happen when everything in this moment is pointing the other direction, when people feel left out of this, when they don't see any benefit from these international agreements?

ROBINSON: Well, I do think we have to listen and take onboard the fact that there are very many people who feel left out, who feel their incomes are shrinking who are part of a Rust Belt in the United States, who are part of worrying about migrants taking their jobs, etc. We have to be sensitive to all of those issues.

But I think we have to then continue with not just our values but the fact that the world faces a genuine existential threat of climate change, and it's a battle for the minds and hearts of the moment. And it's a battle that can't be lost by the side that knows that it is clean energy and a fairer world of solidarity that will bring us forward.

MARTIN: It's no secret that there is a level of skepticism here in the United States about the ability of international organizations to make real change. And, as you know, critics often cite the fact that countries with horrible human rights records have been allowed to sit on the U.N. Human Rights Commission - Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, at one point Libya was the chair of the commission.

ROBINSON: I'm aware of that skepticism, but actually I saw in reality that it can help to have countries with quite bad records in organizations. It's good to have them involved because then their own civil society can come to Geneva and hold them to account, and they do.

I mean, they come from all over the world, and it's their one chance to have their country in the dock and to accuse it, and if they're members of the Human Rights Council to accuse it all the more seriously.

MARTIN: If I could ask you about a real world case in this moment. The U.S. strikes in Syria against the Assad regime came in response to this chemical weapons attack that left so many civilians in Italy province dead. Do you support that strike? Do you think it was a good idea?

ROBINSON: I think it's hard to answer that in one liner. You have to look at the terrible tragedy of what has happened in Syria. It's not right that chemical weapons have been used more than once, as we know, but I also don't like hasty gestures. And I think that this was something done, perhaps, in haste to prove a point, rather than of necessity after due consideration that this had to be done.

At the same time, I'm just worried about how this will play out in the future because the message has gone that a country can act unilaterally and bomb. Are other countries listening? And what message are they getting?

MARTIN: I wonder if I could ask an even broader question about how you think of intervention for humanitarian purposes. I mean, Western democracies have tended to intervene when there's a connection to their own self-interest. But there are plenty of other situations where that link is not necessarily apparent. You take the Rohingya in Myanmar, the slaughter happening now in South Sudan or Nigeria. Do you think all these crisis demand intervention? And if not, how do you decide which lives are worth saving and which are not?

ROBINSON: I think we have a real problem of double standards. To me there should always be a very open, generous, solidarity response to genuine humanitarian problems, and they shouldn't be linked to is this in my interest as a country? You know, the word intervention is a strange word in a way. We should just be there for our fellow human beings in a helpful and supportive a way.

Again, I am - I'm very worried, as I mentioned earlier, about the fact that climate change is undermining development in countries that are already very disrupted by climate. We don't feel it so much in resilient countries, rich countries but that won't be able to continue if it gets a good deal worse as it may.

MARTIN: But you also understand what it means to be the leader of a nation of people and to have to look out for the interests of in your case the Irish and to look, have a hard look at what your financial capability is, how much you can devote to foreign aid to helping those very people who are suffering those climate-related disasters and figuring out how to provide jobs for people who are unemployed in Ireland.

ROBINSON: Yes. That's very true. I did have my priorities. I did have a consciousness. My country couldn't do the impossible and shouldn't be asked to. But, actually, again, if I may, you know, given my focus on human rights and tackling injustice, including the injustice of climate change and its impacts. But I have never had to be the head of state of a country that knows that the country itself will go out of existence if we go above 1.5 degrees Celsius. I never had to do that.

We need to do things that are very serious, and we have no time to waste. I'm very conscious of this because I'm a happy Irish grandmother. So I've asked myself as a grandmother what are we doing to make sure that there will be a secure world where people can live in peace and harmony? We should all be asking that question.

MARTIN: Mary Robinson served as president of Ireland and as high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations. She now leads the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice. Thank you so much for your time.

ROBINSON: OK. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: We'll hear more takes on the history of our time each week this spring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.