Leadership Conference of Women Religious

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Keynote Address by Dr. Mary Robinson

What Can Religious Bring to a Globalizing World?

by Mary Robinson


When I accepted to be a keynote speaker at this joint CMSM – LCWR Assembly, and knew I would address a large and distinguished audience of religious leaders, I was reminded of the wise words of my friend Václav Havel in his essay on The Power of the Powerless (1978).

We do not know the way out of the marasmus of the world, and it would be an expression of unforgivable pride were we to see the little we do as a fundamental solution, or were we to present ourselves, our community, and our solutions to vital problems as the only thing worth doing.”  Václav Havel – The Power of the Powerless” (1978) 1

And yet I feel enormously honoured and encouraged by your invitation, as you clearly see the strong links between my preoccupation with holding governments accountable for implementing human rights and your focus on spiritual values.  I also see that connection.  It is reflected in the first sentence of Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  How appropriate it is to place dignity before rights, in that dignity encompasses all the components of self respect and inner spirituality, that sense of values and worth, that are part of a person’s identity. Listening to a family living in absolute poverty it is this lack they speak of: the lack of self respect, the indignity and humiliation of a refugee camp, the invisibility of being homeless, the helplessness in the face of violence, including violence caused by those in uniform who should protect.

I admit to a very early interest in justice and human rights, stemming no doubt from being the only girl wedged between four brothers!  I was encouraged by my grandfather, a lawyer with a passion for justice and also a deeply religious man, to see law as an instrument for social change.  Having studied law at Trinity College,Dublin and Harvard University, my life seemed predictable: I practiced and taught law, and for twenty years served in the Irish Senate, with a strong focus on cases and advocacy that would help to tackle inequality and injustice.  During this time I had many friends in the Catholic and Protestant ministry, and also Jewish friends, in Ireland North and South, who were working with the homeless, with travelers groups, on poverty in inner city and rural areas, and with vulnerable children.  We were natural allies.

When I was elected President of Ireland in December 1990, I said in my inauguration address that I hoped on behalf of the people of Ireland to address issues of international justice.  It was Aenghus Finucane of Concern who helped in a practical way by publicly inviting me to visit Somalia during the height of the conflict and famine there.  Accepting publicly made it easier for me to persuade the Irish government to agree to a visit!  As President I also greatly valued the work being done on HIV/AIDS by CAFOD which I learned of through Enda McDonagh, and later I appreciated the networks working on this issue at grassroots level such as the African Jesuit AIDS network and the Sisters in Africa network.  On poverty and inequality in Ireland, I found it helpful in my non-executive role to be able to endorse the analysis of economic issues in Ireland by the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI), and to invite my friends Sean Healy and Brigid Reynolds to visit me in my official residence so that I could commend them for their work.  It was a subtle way of getting a message across!

Many of these became allies again during my five year term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Justice and Peace groups were part of a global network of human rights “eyes and ears”, drawing attention to hidden conflicts.  I often found, with pride, that where there was deep trauma after conflict there were priests, nuns and other aid workers with Irish accents and a practical sense of humour working with communities to protect them and to begin the process of rebuilding fragile lives.

I was also acutely aware of a darker cloud: of the painful revelations and coming to terms with a hidden violence within the Catholic church in Ireland, in the United States and elsewhere.  A violence which was an abuse of a power relationship. A violence which broke a precious bond of trust and resulted in a painful loss of innocence for many of faith.  The pain was compounded at times by evidence of denial and protection of the violator rather than a resolute support for and protection of victims, whatever the cost. 

In Ireland, the disclosure of abusive conditions for vulnerable young women in what were known as the Magdalene Laundries was a compelling example of this hidden abuse.  I recall, as President, being able to participate in a moment of healing, of providing respect through recognition, when – in the presence of a number of former victims – I inaugurated (if that is the appropriate word) a simple bench in St Stephen’s Green, in the center of Dublin, so that those who passed by, or chose to sit for a moment, would remember.

For victims, often the most important thing of all, as you know, is to be listened to. It is to have an opportunity to voice in a public way what was a private shame, and thereby to restore their self respect. 

The sheer scale of the abuses uncovered in different countries, with the publicity, the lawsuits, and the economic burden on parishes, have had, I believe, a deeper hurtful impact on the hundreds of thousands who chose the religious life.  Some have found themselves coping with a sense of guilt by association.  The jokes about celibacy, the cruel parodies, the sarcasm of angry critics within, the alienation of many young people, have spread the burden of pain.  And yet, experiencing that powerlessness of being, in effect, victims by association, may be a real asset in deepening your capacity to “no longer be bystanders” and to work to create peace in violent times, as so many of you are doing already.

In 1995, while President, I was honoured to be asked by Professor Hans Küng to contribute to a book he was compiling, Yes to a Global Ethic.2  I had read some of his work, and was interested in how he was seeking to identify common values among all the world’s religions and faiths to define a global ethic.  Hans Küng’s vision impressed me, the idea of finding a universal common ground among religions that would provide humanity with a common value system.  Writing in 1999, he explained it this way:

The globalization of the economy, technology, and the media means also the globalization of problems: from financial and labor markets to the environment and organized crime!  What is therefore also needed is the globalization of ethic.  Again: not a uniform ethical system (“ethics”), but a necessary minimum of shared ethical values, basic attitudes and standards to which all regions, nations, and interest groups can subscribe – in other words, a shared basic ethic for humankind.  Indeed, there can be no new world order without a world ethic, a global ethic.”3

Starting with the Universal Declaration in 1948, and carried forward in the body of international law that has been painstakingly developed over half a century, the world has expressed through human rights a legal framework of shared commitment to the values of dignity, equality, and human security for all people. Our challenge is to give those values practical effect both in our own communities and in the global community of nations.  We each have a responsibility to help realize the vision of the Universal Declaration, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, to make human rights matter “in small places, close to home.” 

That leads me to a theme that was constant for me while High Commissioner for Human Rights and which will remain such in my current work.  Simply described, it concerns implementation and delivery.  How do we move on from proclaiming the rights of people and the obligations those rights give rise to on the part of states and the international community, towards the realisation of those rights and obligations in practice, on the ground?  How do we convert the great steps that have been taken to date, both to define rights and commit states to those definitions, into truly effective collective action at national and international levels to secure those rights for everyone in our world, without distinction? 

Under the banner ‘all human rights for all’, the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993 endorsed the strong link between human rights, democracy and development.

We began the 21st century with an important affirmation of that link.  In September 2000, in New York, the largest gathering ever of heads of state and government expressed, through the United Nations Millennium Declaration, the international community’s renewed commitment to the principles of justice and international law.

The Millennium Declaration stressed the need for sustained efforts to create a shared future, based upon our common humanity in all its diversity.  It identified as the priority: “to make globalization work for all the world’s people”.4 The moment was marked by a spirit of re-dedication to international law and institutions as the best hope for the 21st century, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed to, with specific targets and timelines, as the practical global agenda.  These eight goals, you will recall, include halving those in extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, achieving universal primary education for boys and girls by 2015; and specific targets for promoting gender equality and empowerment of women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

But just one year and three days after this historic declaration was adopted, the terrible events of September 11, 2001 set the world on a different and much less hopeful course.  Since that day, the commitments which ushered in the new century have been increasingly overshadowed by the threats of terrorism, by fears and uncertainties about the future, and by questions about the viability of open societies joined by international norms and values.  The war in Iraq has been the most recent and extreme test to date of the international system’s legitimacy and relevance in this new global environment.

Our post 9/11 world is preoccupied with different experiences of insecurity.  The atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, the misery of the millions living with, and orphaned by, HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and elsewhere, the long hardships suffered by indigenous peoples in the Americas, the humiliating poverty in slums and rural areas in the developing world – they all tell us a deplorable truth: that governments in different regions of the world are failing to provide even the rudiments of human security.

 In the United States and Europe the focus is on state security and combating acts of terrorism.  But the stark reality is that the terrible attacks of 9/11 had no discernable impact on the millions of peoples already at daily risk from violence, disease and abject poverty.  Their insecurity continues to stem from worry about where the next meal will come from, how to acquire medicines for a dying child, how to avoid the criminal with a gun, how to manage the household as a ten year old – the comprehensive insecurity of the powerless. 

For women, gender is itself a risk factor threatening human security: the secret violence of household abuse, the private oppressions of lack of property or inheritance rights, the lifelong deprivations that go with lack of schooling and the structural problem of political exclusion.  I shall return to this issue later, because of the impact religions can have on women’s lives. 

What I began to appreciate as President of Ireland – on visits, for example, to Somalia and Rwanda – and became convinced of during my five years in the UN – is that the underlying causes of practically all human insecurity are an absence of capacity to influence change at personal or community level, exclusion from voting or participating in any way in national decision making, and economic or social marginalization.  The key to change lies in empowering people to secure their own lives.  For this they need the means to try to hold their governments accountable, at local and national levels.

This broader understanding of human security was examined by an Independent Commission on Human Security, co-chaired by Amartya Sen and Sadako Ogata. Their report, Human Security Now (2003), explains that human security involves a new paradigm which shifts from the security of the state to the security of the people – to human security.  The emphasis is on the extent to which human security brings together the human elements of security, of rights and of development. 

The report identifies two underlying concepts, protection and empowerment, which lie at the heart of human security.  The first of these, protection, is primarily a state responsibility, and sometimes an international responsibility, as examined and clarified by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in their report: The Responsibility to Protect (2001).

The Commission on Human Security describes the second concept, empowerment, as: “People’s ability to act on their own behalf – and on behalf of others …People empowered can demand respect for their dignity when it is violated.  They can create new opportunities for work and address many problems locally.  And they can mobilize for the security of others.”   This is a concept around which the human rights voice and the spiritual voice can join together and promote innovative examples.  Essentially we need to make more visible, and build on, the grassroots movements which are using the human rights framework to hold their governments more accountable for implementing rights to food, to safe water, to health and education, and for doing so without discrimination.

I witnessed this grassroots work in every country I visited as High Commissioner. Human Rights groups, women’s groups, those working on child rights, with minorities, or tackling poverty were using tools of budget analysis and policy research to expose failures to implement progressively these rights, or to challenge expenditures on unnecessary military equipment or projects benefiting only a small elite.  Invariably, the work was under-resourced, undervalued and often resented by those in power.  Now these groups have additional tools available in the commitments both developed and developing countries have made to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, which will be reviewed during next year and debated at the General Assembly in September 2005.  An opportunity presents itself to reinforce the empowerment of grassroots organizations in every region, by helping them to link their country’s undertaking to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and the country’s legal commitments to progressively implement economic and social rights under the relevant international treaties. 

There is a further link which needs to be made here in the United States.  I have noted that when President Bush emphasizes the importance of fighting terrorism and promoting freedom, he explains that it is not America’s freedom he is referring to, but “God’s freedom”.  This allows you, drawing on your spiritual values, to make it clear that freedom in this sense should encompass this broader human security.  In the words of Secretary General Kofi Annan: “Human Security in its broadest sense embraces far more than the absence of violent conflict.  It encompasses human rights, good governance, access to education and health care and ensuring that each individual has opportunities and choices to fulfill his or her own potential”(2000)

Linking freedom and human security in this way could also have a positive impact on the allocation of resources.  Additional money to support the Millennium Goals was pledged by the United States at a Conference on Financing for Development held in Monterrey, Mexico, and the European Union has also increased its commitment.  However, there is still a wide disparity between the global spending on development assistance, which amounts to around $60 billion a year, the annual amount developed countries spend on agricultural subsidies of $300 billion, and global military expenditure of $900 billion.  It has been estimated that an additional $50-60 billion annually on development assistance would be needed to ensure full implementation of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.  If this extra expenditure would in fact make the world more secure, does it not seem like a good investment?

Let me return now to the role which religions tend to play in the lives of women.  I would like to invite this joint assembly to reflect on the factors from within which may influence this role, and to consider how religions can more actively support the empowerment of women.

Let me begin by summarizing the analysis by Mahnez Afkhami, in her book “Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism and Women’s Human Rights in Muslim Societies.”  She points out that the infringement of women's rights is usually exercised in the name of tradition, religion, social cohesion, morality, or some complex of transcendent values. Always, it is justified in the name of culture. 

She reminds us that in different societies, and under different religions, the status of women – socially, politically, legally, economically - has been fundamentally the same across history for the vast majority of women, with changes taking place gradually over the last century.  She continues:

“Everywhere, change in women's status has meant a change in the culture of patriarchy. In other words, cultural change is both a byproduct and requisite of change in women's status. 

The contemporary threat to women and their rights in the Muslim world springs mainly from a resurgence of radical fundamentalist thought and politics in the last quarter of the 20th century. The fundamentalist resurgence forces Muslim women to fight for their rights, openly when they can, subtly when they must. The struggle is multifaceted, at once political, economic, ethical, psychological, and intellectual. It resonates with the mix of values, mores, facts, ambitions, prejudices, ambivalences, uncertainties, and fears that are the stuff of human culture. Above all, it is a casting off of a tradition of subjection.”

Do we, from European and US backgrounds, understand the struggle of women in the Muslim world?  Should we not be honest and admit we don’t listen enough? Differences belong to the field of culture. The problem arises when one culture – any culture – is considered the model for an ethical subject. This is a great problem, a kind of blindness, for many of us from the west. Women from different cultures must be prepared to create that vital space for women to determine their own priorities. We must come together to see how to think of the ‘sameness’ of the ethical subject without slipping in one culture, one history, as the model. I sense, for example, that women in Muslim societies do not want to face the stark choice of an increasingly fundamentalist society or a western “McDonalds” society. Rightly, they seek the space to make their own choices, based on their spirituality and on the universality of human rights. Women’s rights grow out of the struggle of women to determine their choices, their priorities, and their vision. My friend, the poet, Eavan Boland, put it very well when she wrote of women ‘finding a voice where they had found a vision’.

We need to be aware that a certain threat to women’s rights is also posed by the resurgence, particularly in the United States, of Christian fundamentalism, and the alliance of countries influenced by fundamentalist thinking evident at recent world conferences.  A striking example occurred at the Johannesburg Conference on Sustainable Development in September 2002, where a text prepared for adoption would have subjugated women’s health to local custom and religious practice. A protest was organized in support of a Canadian amendment inserting reference to international human rights standards, which would safeguard the progress made at the Cairo and Beijing Conferences.  I was invited to join a picket outside.  After some hesitation I accepted the invitation in order to bring home the threat posed to women’s health and reproductive rights.  At the start of this new century women were once again struggling to preserve the space they have gained against powerful forces invoking God. 

To combat the resurgence of fundamentalisms, I believe it is necessary for faith adherents to place the empowerment of women at the centre of their own strategic thinking.  Women must be enabled to participate fully and equally in decision making within the faiths themselves, and their concerns need to be embraced as priorities in prayer, advocacy and activism. 

Let me identify three areas in which Interfaith activism at local level could make a significant contribution to the empowerment of women: 

On violence against women, particularly domestic violence and trafficking of women.

On recognizing the gender dimension of the pandemic of HIV/AIDs and adopting 
       a  pro-active approach to securing women’s lives and health. 

On exploitation of women, as domestic workers and in the informal workforce.

In each of these areas the problem is extremely serious but it still lacks the priority policy attention it deserves.  Each area involves a pattern of power relationships where women are vulnerable, and where official attitudes are often indifferent. Each touches on family laws, which affect the position of women most intimately, and have remained relatively impervious to the forces of modernization.  These are the spaces where religions often exert a strong conditioning influence and so have the power to influence change, provided they have the courage to make changes themselves from within. 

On your Assembly’s powerful theme – ‘no longer bystanders: creating peace in violent times’ - I would like to conclude by invoking Virginia Woolf’s words to men on behalf of women:  

“We can best help you prevent war, not by repeating your words and repeating your methods, but by finding new words and creating new methods”. 

Could there be a new alliance between those within faiths, the human rights community and the women’s movement to find these new words and create new methods?  Our world needs to regain that kind of hope. 

1  Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990
    Vaclav Havel, selected and edited by Paul Wilson Vintage Books 1992
2   Edited by Hans Kung SM Press Ltd 1996
3   Hans Kung's Project for a Global Ethic 1999, International Journal of Politics, Culture 
    and Society 
Vol. 13 No. 1999 at P. 16