The Elders

Mary Robinson

“When Nelson Mandela brought us together as Elders, he did so in the belief that together we are stronger, that change happens when people collectively take action to make our world a better place.”

Former President of Ireland

“I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.”

Giving voice to human rights

“Human rights are inscribed in the hearts of people; they were there long before lawmakers drafted their first proclamation.”

Climate change: a matter of justice

“If we are to be true to our commitment to human rights, then rich nations owe a fair and honest deal to the world’s most vulnerable regions. The people on climate change’s frontline have often done the least to cause it.”

Calling for more women leaders

“If we empower women, we stand a chance of succeeding at everything else.”

Mary Robinson biography

First woman President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; a passionate, forceful advocate for gender equality, women’s participation in peace-building and human dignity.
  • President of Ireland 1990-1997
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 1997-2002
  • Institutional reformer: brought the human rights agenda into the core of United Nations activities
  • UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa 2013-2014
  • UN Envoy on Climate Change 2014-2015
  • Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin
  • Current UN Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate
"Part of the wisdom of the Elders is to remind the world that we actually have universal values that are accepted by every government in the world and yet they are not being implemented."
  • Work with The Elders

    Mary Robinson has been a member of The Elders since the group was founded in 2007 and makes it a priority to bring the concerns of ordinary people to the global stage.

    She has travelled to the Middle East several times with The Elders to encourage peace efforts and support Israelis and Palestinans working for peaceful coexistence; visited the Korean Peninsula to help ease tensions between North and South Korea and learn more about North Korea’s chronic food crisis; joined an Elders' delegation to Côte d'Ivoire to emphasise the importance of reconciliation following widespread civil conflict in early 2011.

    In 2012 she visited South Sudan to meet leaders, civil society and refugees from recent fighting, urging a return to dialogue between Sudan and South Sudan. Later that year she was part of an Elders' visit to Cairo to encourage Egypt's democratic transition.

    A tireless champion of women’s equality, she also travelled to Ethiopia in June 2011 with her fellow Elders to convene an international meeting of experts and activists working to end child marriage, which was followed by a visit to India in February 2012 to support youth activists tackling early marriage in their own communities.

    Mrs Robinson also participated in the Elders+Youngers project, an intergenerational dialogue on sustainable development between four Elders and four young change-makers during the Rio+20 summit in June 2012.

    In October 2012, Mary Robinson was on the Elders delegation visiting the Middle East to draw attention to the imperilled two-state solution in Israel and Palestine and to lend their support to the Egyptian democratic transition.

  • First woman President of Ireland

    Mary Robinson was elected Irish President in 1990 and served for seven years as a principled and transformative leader who continued to fight for equality and women’s rights throughout her time in office. A firm believer in dialogue and reconciliation, she broke taboos by being the first Irish head of state to make official visits to Britain, as well as regularly visiting Northern Ireland.

    She was the first head of state to visit Somalia following the crisis there in 1992, and brought global media attention to the suffering of Rwandans as the first Head of State to visit the country just after the 1994 genocide.

  • Human rights champion

    As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), Mary Robinson integrated human rights into the United Nations system and became renowned as an outspoken voice dedicated to investigating and exposing human rights abuses across the world.

    Mary Robinson founded Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, which aimed to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage.

    As an academic, legislator and barrister, Mary Robinson has always sought to use law as an instrument for social change, arguing landmark cases before the European Court of Human Rights as well as in the Irish courts and the European Court in Luxembourg. A committed European, she also served on expert European Community and Irish parliamentary committees. In 1988 Mary Robinson and her husband founded the Irish Centre for European Law at Trinity College, the University of Dublin. Ten years later she was elected Chancellor of the University.

  • Tackling global issues

    Mary Robinson heads the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, a centre for education and advocacy on sustainable and people-centred development in the world’s poorest communities.

    She co-founded the Council of Women World Leaders, a network that mobilises women leaders at the highest levels to promote democracy and gender equality. She is a member of the Club of Madrid, a group of global leaders working on governance and conflict issues. She is also:

    • Honorary President of Oxfam International
    • Former President of the International Commission of Jurists
    • Board Member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation
    • Board Member of the European Climate Foundation

    Mary Robinson served as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa from 2013-2014, stepping down in July 2014 to take up the post of Special Envoy for Climate Change.

    She continued in this post until the end of December 2015 which saw the successful conclusion of the COP21 Climate Summit and the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

    In May 2016, she was appointed as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate, along with Macharia Kamau of Kenya, to focus the world’s attention to meet the urgent challenges posed by extreme weather events on the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

View all articles by Mary Robinson

Nelson Mandela

(1918-2013) Founder

Former President of South Africa and Nobel Peace Laureate; a leader who dedicated his life to the anti-apartheid struggle, democracy and equality; founder of The Elders.

Martti Ahtisaari

Former President of Finland; Nobel Peace Laureate and expert in international peace mediation, diplomacy and post-conflict state building.

Kofi Annan

Chair of The Elders

Former UN Secretary-General, Nobel Peace Laureate and Chair of The Elders; put development, human rights, the rule of law, good governance and peace at the top of the United Nations agenda.

Ela Bhatt

Elder Emeritus

The ‘gentle revolutionary’; a pioneer in women’s empowerment and grassroots development, founder of the more than 1 million-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association in India.

Lakhdar Brahimi

Former Algerian freedom fighter, Foreign Minister, conflict mediator and UN diplomat; an expert in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction.

Gro Harlem Brundtland

Deputy Chair of The Elders

First woman Prime Minister of Norway and Deputy Chair of The Elders; a medical doctor who champions health as a human right; put sustainable development on the international agenda.

Fernando H Cardoso

Elder Emeritus

Former President of Brazil; implemented major land reform programme, reduced poverty and significantly improved health and education; an acclaimed sociologist and global advocate for drug policy reform.

Jimmy Carter

Elder Emeritus

Former President of the United States, Nobel Peace Laureate and veteran peace negotiator; dedicated to advancing peace, democracy and health worldwide.

Hina Jilani

Pioneering lawyer and pro-democracy campaigner; a leading activist in Pakistan's women's movement and international champion of human rights.

Ricardo Lagos

Former President of Chile; tenacious fighter for democracy and human rights; implemented health reform; and reduced economic inequality while diversifying Chile’s external trade in the era of globalisation.

Graça Machel

International advocate for women’s and children's rights; former freedom fighter and first Education Minister of Mozambique.

Mary Robinson

First woman President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; a passionate, forceful advocate for gender equality, women’s participation in peace-building and human dignity.

Desmond Tutu

Elder Emeritus

Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Nobel Peace Laureate and Honorary Elder; a veteran anti-apartheid activist and peace campaigner widely regarded as ‘South Africa’s moral conscience’.

Ernesto Zedillo

Former President of Mexico who led profound democratic and social reforms; economist and advocate of multilateralism, inclusive globalisation, nuclear non-proliferation and drug policy reform.

The Elders are independent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.

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