Former president of Ireland speaks about human rights at Columbia College

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 | 10:48 p.m. CST; updated 6:18 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 30, 2013

COLUMBIA — When Mary Robinson finished school in western Ireland, she recalled her family presenting her with two potential life paths: become a nun or get married.

"I chose being a nun. It sounded more interesting," Robinson said with a laugh.

Before joining the convent, however, she wanted to take a year off to see the world. That year changed her outlook on life. She never became a nun. Instead, Robinson went on to become Ireland's first female president and later serve as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Robinson spoke at Columbia College Tuesday night as part of the Schiffman Ethics in Society Lecture Series. Earlier in the afternoon, she sat on a panel of Columbia College faculty and students for a Q-and-A discussion.

During the afternoon discussion, Robinson focused on human rights issues and opened up about her position as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights during a time when the office didn't have much influence.

"I had to ask myself, how can I try to give leadership to the UN for human rights?" she said. "I decided the only way to address the reality of human rights issues were to go to where the victims were."

Robinson got to see abuses first hand. She spoke about how many countries still continue to practice old cultural rituals that degrade women by genital mutilation or child marriage and how these practices can't be protected just because of their place in tradition.

"She's an incredible spokesman for the world and I was impressed by that," said Michael Eichelberger, who attended the afternoon panel discussion.

Later in the evening, Robinson directed her focus to a newer passion of hers, bringing awareness to global climate change and its implications for human rights.

"If anyone was talking about climate change, they were talking about glaciers or polar bears or science, but not about people," she said.

While in Africa, Robinson was shocked by seasons of drought followed by intense floods that were wrecking the lives of millions of African farmers. Everywhere she went she heard from farmers about how their lives have gotten worse since changes in the weather. She said they believed they were being punished by God.

"Many people don't even know climate change is happening," she said.

Now more than ever, students, Robinson concluded, need to become "citizens of the world."

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