Top U.N. human rights official speaks at U

Elizabeth Putnam

Minnesotans spoke to world leaders and each other about human rights and the state of society at an international town hall forum at Northrop Auditorium on Saturday.

More than 600 people gathered to hear U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson and former Vice President Walter Mondale speak about the Sept. 11 tragedies.

Robinson and Mondale said they condemned the terrorist attacks and invited Minnesotans to help resolve global differences.

“Sept. 11 was a day when the world changed for us. Because for a few moments, this, the most powerful nation, found itself defenseless against unimaginable horrors delivered at will by anonymous attackers,” Mondale said.

Mondale emphasized the importance of celebrating diversity and maintaining communication between different cultures.

“Minnesota is a unique community in many respects, no more so than in the field of human rights,” Mondale said. “There are more global human rights organizations and staff in Minnesota than in any place in our country outside of New York and our nation’s capitol.”

Mondale concluded by focusing on community commitments.

“We believe that the key to our success is to be found in our respect for the rule of law, in the respect that we have for each other and for our differences and in our faith to sustain and build this community,” Mondale said.

Robinson was on a picnic with a friend on an island off the west coast of Ireland on Sept. 11.

“He was actually showing me a stone carving of the resurrection, seventh century stone carving, when there was a bleep on the boatman’s bleeper,” Robinson said. “He said, ‘You know you won’t want to hear this, but I’m afraid you’ll have to hear it.’ And then he told me that a plane has hit the twin towers and he said, ‘I think they are going to hit the White House.’ Then our day changed entirely.”

Robinson went to ground zero in New York to witness firsthand the human elements of the aftermath.

“Human rights begins with the victims, with the victims and the need to insure that when there is a terrible violation of human rights and in particular the right to life, we must be thinking immediately of the accountability of bringing the perpetrators to justice,” Robinson said.

As high commissioner, Robinson focuses on international human rights. She categorized the terrorist attacks as a crime against humanity.

Robinson also addressed concerns about diminishing human rights because of enhanced national security.

“The key point that must be emphasized is that there is no basis for seeing human rights and security as opposed to one another,” Robinson said. “There are built-in balances in the system of human rights protection.”

Robinson thanked Minnesota for its commitment and continuing work for human rights.

“I think it is a very important message, and in a way I look to Minnesota to promote strongly here in this great country because you have a very strong human rights presence and resources,” Robinson said.

After she spoke, members of the audience voiced concerns and suggested ways to resolve the present conflict.

Robinson addressed the ideas and questions at the end of the forum.

“We are here to focus on the positive, to talk about what you think is right for this country, what’s right for our community, for you and your co-workers, neighbors and families,” said Gary Gilson, moderator and executive director of the Minnesota News Council. “We would like to leave here with a sense of clarity and of purpose and solid actionable ideas about we can all get along better together.”

Audience members advocated stronger domestic education in international affairs, assembling a U.N. police force and instilling hope in the children across the world.

“It is important that we who are citizens of this great nation take a serious look at what we have done to set the stage for this to occur,” said a United Methodist pastor and audience member. “We need to support the strengthening and development of a world court … We need to do all that we can to make sure that the war in Afghanistan doesn’t spread to other countries.”

A Navy veteran spoke about educating children during a time of crisis.

“If we are ever going to have peace in the world, we must start with the children,” the veteran said.

Robinson said she would convey audience sentiments to her colleagues at the United Nations.

“I understand the strengths in this country, strengths to process uplifting human rights and the difficulty culturally of understanding. We are now having to measure much more rigorously progressive implementation of economic, social and cultural ideas,” Robinson said.


Elizabeth Putnam welcomes comments at [email protected]