Mary Robinson's term as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was, according to political observers, controversial. Her supporters attribute this reputation to her willingness to stand up to the great powers. She criticized the United States for its treatment of prisoners of war from Afghanistan held at Guantanamo Bay, spoke out against Russian abuses in Chechnya and ruffled quite a few official feathers on a visit to China. Her staunchest critics, though, are not the governments of the United States, Russia or China. They are Jewish organizations and the government of Israel.
Some of the accusations are unfair. Too much blame has been assigned to her for the disastrous Durban Conference against racism. It was the Organization of the Islamic Conference that hijacked the conference as part of a strategy to vilify Israel in every UN forum. Ms. Robinson could, however, have taken an early and public stance against the OIC's attempts to slander the Jewish movement for self-determination - Zionism - as racist, to denigrate the Holocaust and to ridicule the problem of anti-Semitism by perverting its accepted meaning to include anti-Arab racism. But she did not. This was a case of failed leadership, not of bias.
During her term in office, Mary Robinson addressed many complex political and humanitarian situations, including Kosovo, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Congo. But only her assessments of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians caused such virulent charges of bias — and with good reason. All too often, Ms. Robinson omitted essential facts and context in a manner that would ordinarily cause respectable journalists to be fired.
Just one of her reports provides several examples. Introducing her report on the conflict to the UN Commission on Human Rights last April, Ms. Robinson excused herself for being late. She explained that she had just received a telephone call from Hanan Ashrawi, a well-known Palestinian spokesperson, who requested that she assure the commission that bombs had never been transported in Palestinian ambulances. Such accusations, Ms. Robinson related on behalf of Ms. Ashrawi, were Israeli propaganda. What Ms. Robinson certainly knew — but chose not to say — was that the International Committee of the Red Cross had witnessed a bomb being removed from a Palestinian ambulance and detonated on the spot just four weeks earlier.
In her written report, Ms. Robinson criticized Israel for "a siege around the compound of President Arafat in an attempt to force the handover of certain Palestinians inside." She neglected to mention that four of the "certain Palestinians" had assassinated an Israeli Cabinet Minister and a fifth had organized the massive smuggling of explosives and anti-aircraft rockets from Iran on the Karine-A ship.
How did Ms. Robinson characterize the armed Palestinians who defiled the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? They were merely "imposing their presence in convents of the various communities." Watching that incident on CNN, I saw the cynical abuse of a church by terrorists. Ms. Robinson apparently saw unwanted guests.
How was this report received? Iraq, Syria, China, Egypt, Iran and Cuba lauded Ms. Robinson's testimony as "courageous" and "balanced." From the world's leading violators of human rights, such praise is damning for a High Commissioner.
Controversy is an essential characteristic of the job of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who must challenge states — and non-state actors — to uphold and protect human rights. The human rights community calls this "speaking truth to power." Speaking half-truths is what will mar Mary Robinson's legacy as High Commissioner.