Mary Robinson is the former president of Ireland, the former U.N. High Commissioner for human rights and the current chair of the Elders. That's a group of independent global leaders who were brought together back in 2007 by Nelson Mandela to work together for peace and human rights. Mary Robinson has had a long and prestigious career. She took the time to share some of her thoughts with Euronews on the COVID-19 pandemic, inequalities, migration, climate change and even Princess Latifah.
What would be the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the dangerously widening gap between countries, populations and social classes?
Chair of The Elders, Mary Robinson:
"It's very concerning, the Elders have been speaking a lot about the fact that Covid has exacerbated all of the inequalities, the inequalities of race, of gender, of having a disability of being marginalised, of being a migrant, being a refugee, all exacerbated. And it's going to be difficult because, behind the COVID crisis, we have the climate crisis. So we have to recover from Covid in a way that's also aligned with the need to reduce emissions. So it's a very, very serious decade that we face now. And, you know, the inequalities are very, very real and people are hurting badly. And, you know, we will probably come to this but women, in particular, have been badly affected".
Studies show that women have taken on the lion's share of caring and the lion's share of childminding during the pandemic. It's 2021 and women in Europe are still earning, on average, 14% less per hour than men with huge differences in EU member states. Why is it important to address this as soon as possible?
"It's really important to address what the U.N. is now calling, what UN women are calling ‘generation equality’, and to do it, to mark the 25th anniversary of Beijing, which was actually last year but we are marking it this year with a particular focus. And it is true that women's work has been recognised in health, in care, even in cleaning hospitals. Low-paid jobs that we now appreciate more because they've kept places open that otherwise wouldn't be open. And yet women are also disproportionately unemployed, either because they're in sectors like hospitality, retail, that are particularly affected by COVID, or as you said, they carry more of the care burden and may have had to withdraw from the workforce because of home schooling or caring for the elderly and so on".
Will this pandemic serve as a wake-up call to Europe? As a continent we are all getting older and we may need to start preparing perhaps for the next pandemic or the future?
"Well, in fact, the Elders are very aware. We have Gro Harlem Brundtland, one of our elders, and she has been chairing a committee that warned about this pandemic in the September before it started last year. And she’s part studying that we can have future pandemics. So, yes, the world as a whole needs to have a concern for that. And I actually want to try and have us think in a different way about coming out of COVID. I don't like, frankly, ‘build back better’ because I don't think we want to go back to the very unequal world we had. We want to build forward with equality and justice and sustainability, sustainability with nature and with our need to have a livable world for our children and grandchildren".
A topic that has been dominating and dividing Europe for years is the question of how to manage migration. How should Europe have dealt with this better?
"So we need a much fairer system in Europe. We need we mustn't leave it to the Mediterranean countries, particularly Italy and Greece, to bear a disproportionate burden that's not fair. And, you know, it's gone on for too long. We actually need to manage this in a much fairer… and in the end, we know that those migrants who leave in dangerous circumstances and come to another country are entrepreneurial. They're brave, they're courageous, and they build societies wherever they go. That's the experience".
Would you agree that the images we see of migrant camps in places like Bosnia, should put Europe and European politicians to shame?
"I think we really have to do better. You know, we've had direct provision in Ireland and we are reforming what we're doing because we recognise that, you know, a community is judged by how you deal with prisoners and how you deal with those who've had to come because they're fleeing conflict or persecution elsewhere. And so I think, you know, there does need to be a focus on these issues of social justice, as well as coming out of Covid with much more comprehensive Social Security systems throughout Europe and indeed beyond".
As an Elder, you're a peace activist. How concerned are you now about Anglo-Irish relations and the fragility of the Good Friday Peace Agreement?
"I think you will understand that's an issue I can't really speak about as the former president, I will stay out of politics generally. But I follow it very closely and indeed passionately. But I don't want to say anything because things are a bit strained at the moment. And that's not good".
In Brussels, there was a buzz this week among the climate change movers and shakers because John Kerry was saying that he wants to work with the EU to help them reach their ambitious green goals. What do politicians and big industry need to do to make sure that this continent of Europe is carbon neutral by 2050?
"We have two huge frameworks this year. We have the Convention on Biological Diversity in China and we have the conference on climate in Glasgow in November, put off, both of them put off from last year. We need every country and every corporation and every investment company and every community basically to say we will be without emissions, you know, free of emissions by 2050 or earlier and then work backwards. What does this mean in 2030, in 2025? What does it mean in the pledges we're making for our countries? And as yet, we're not on course. And if you add up what we know of what countries are pledging, we have not got a safe world".
You have been in the public eye for decades and a long career like this doesn't come without a hiccup or two. Yours came, of course, back in 2018 and Dubai when you encountered Princess Latifa. You've spoken about this a lot in the last couple of weeks, you've been honest and you've said that you were naive. Do you feel that the last two years were perhaps a missed opportunity to advocate more vocally for her case?
"I think it's actually very important now to support the Office of High Commissioner, the high commissioner who has asked for proof of life and to actually go further with the mandates of the office and seek the release not just of Latifa, but also of her sister. That's where the focus has to be".
To watch the full interview with Mary Robinson, click on the media player above.