I really think that diplomatic negotiations depend on the negotiator’s personality.
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Although there may be tactics and power games behind negotiations, personality plays a large role in the talks between countries. When the negotiator builds trust, the negotiation will move forward based on facts. However, if the negotiator tries to force through an agreement, the negotiation will fail in the long run. It seems that the best diplomatic negotiations are those that are carried out through diplomatic networks built steadily on face-to-face communication.
In this interview I speak to two former Presidents, Mary Robinson of Ireland and Martti Ahtisaari of Finland. Robinson, a champion of human rights, was the first female UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Ahtisaari, who has greatly contributed to the United Nations in his successive roles as international envoy, has made enormous efforts to resolve conflicts all over the world. I asked them about diplomatic issues, women’s issues and double standards in international law.
Photo: Paul Sharp
Mary Robinson’s approach has been consistent with strong beliefs deeply rooted in fundamental human rights. She is active, sympathetic to others and open to everyone. She visited Rwanda in the aftermath of its civil war in 1994, witnessing the disastrous state that the country was in. The emotion she showed at her press conference after her visit drew the world’s attention to the situation.
Although Robinson’s parents were both medical doctors, the members of her wider family worked in a range of occupations – among them were a lawyer, a politician, an activist, and a nun. She studied law at Trinity College Dublin and Harvard Law School, later becoming a professor of law at Trinity. At the age of 26 she married Nick Robinson, a Protestant and fellow law student, despite the fact that it caused a rift with her parents (the family had close ties to the Catholic Church).
Mary Robinson represented the University of Dublin in the Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate, the upper house of the country’s parliament), for twenty years from 1969 to 1989. Unlike the Dáil Éireann, the lower house, members of the Seanad Éireann are not directly elected; its powers are also weaker than those of the Dáil Éireann.
As senator, Robinson introduced a bill to amend Ireland’s law on contraceptives, which could not be legally bought or sold in the country. She was harshly denounced by conservative critics for doing so. She was also a member of the Dublin City Council from 1979 to 1983.
Elected to the presidency in 1990, Robinson – who ran as a nominee of the Labour Party – became the seventh President of Ireland, and the first woman to hold the position. She revitalised the presidency during her time in office, increasing the status of what had previously been seen as an honorary, low-profile position.
Through the force of her speeches and with a constant emphasis on human rights, she drew the world's attention to neglected places including Somalia and Rwanda. Raising Ireland’s profile within the international community, her approval rating within the country reached an unprecedented 93 per cent. In September 1997, Robinson resigned two months before the end of her term to take up the role of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She served in the position until 2002.
Robinson then founded and led Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, which aimed to advance fair globalisation and women's leadership. In 2010 she founded the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRCFJ) to secure global justice for the poor populations around the world that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In March 2013, she became UN Special Envoy for Africa’s Great Lakes region – it was the first time that a woman was appointed as a UN special envoy. She is also Chancellor of University of Dublin.
Photo: Paul Sharp
As an expert in resolving international conflict, Martti Ahtisaari exudes a mild-mannered warmth, making an impression that is far from aggressive.
Born in Finnish Karelia (now part of Russia), Ahtisaari moved to Finland as a refugee. He was evacuated to Kuopio during the Second World War and spent his childhood there. At the age of 15, he moved to Oulu, where he graduated from high school and fulfilled his military service. He also completed a distance-learning course at Oulu’s teacher-training college, which gave him a teaching qualification and enabled him to go on and become a primary school teacher.
In 1960, when he was 23 years old, he moved to Karachi, Pakistan, to lead the YMCA’s physical education programme. After returning to Finland, Ahtisaari joined the international organisation AIESEC – a student-run NGO that provides students with leadership training and internship opportunities – where he discovered his passion for diplomacy. In 1965, at the age of 28, he joined the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs in its Bureau for International Development Aid.
Ahtisaari served as UN Commissioner for Namibia from 1977 to 1981, working to secure Namibia’s independence from South Africa. In 1989, he returned Namibia as the UN Special Representative. As head of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG), he brokered a truce between the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) and South Africa. He organised fair elections and formulated a framework for Namibia’s constitution, leading to the country’s independence.
As the Social Democratic candidate, Martti Ahtisaari was elected President of Finland in 1994. After leaving the presidency in 2000, he took on successive posts as UN special envoy, working to resolve conflict in the world’s trouble spots including Aceh, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. He founded Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) in 2000 to build sustainable peace around the world. Ahtisaari received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.
I wondered: what was it like to play such an active role on the global stage? And where did their passion and energy – displayed in everything that Mary Robinson and Martti Ahtisaari said – come from?
This interview took place in Dublin, Ireland in May 2013.
Chuo-Koron: As members of The Elders, you visited Sudan and South Sudan in 2012 to encourage a dialogue between those two nations. What is actually happening there, and how dire is the situation?
Mary Robinson: What happened was President Carter and Lakhdar Brahimi went to Sudan and met with the President [Omar al-Bashir] to urge him to have more reconciliation and talks with President Salva Kiir in South Sudan. And Martti, myself and Archbishop Tutu went to South Sudan. It was actually a couple of days before the first anniversary [of South Sudan’s independence in July 2011], so it was a good time to press and urge President Kiir that the fighting had to stop in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, that the refugees were coming across the border – we went up and saw the refugees. So in a way, we managed as Elders to visit both Sudan and South Sudan, pressing both Presidents. And I think it did really have some impact.
Martti Ahtisaari: And we did it in order to support the African Union’s efforts, and met their people in Addis as well when we had a visit there. It was also very important that we had meetings with civil society, such as the women’s groups – a very good meeting with them.
Mary Robinson: The women’s groups wanted to link with each other.
Martti Ahtisaari: Yes, both across the border as well. And now they have talked, and all seems to be flowing, so that’s a positive thing.
Mary Robinson: Indeed, in January, in Addis, I had a nice follow-up with the women from South Sudan and Sudan who came together. Some of them had been at that meeting, and were especially delighted to have a meeting with Archbishop Tutu. [Laughter]
The Elders meet humanitarian workers at Yusuf Batil refugee camp in South Sudan, July 2012
President Robinson, you have been a champion of human rights throughout your life, and you were the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Most recently, you visited Rwanda and Ethiopia as the United Nations Special Envoy for Africa’s Great Lakes region. You also head the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice. Would you explain how climate change issues and human rights issues are tightly connected?
Mary Robinson: They’re very tightly connected in my view, because I came to the climate issue not as a climate scientist or even as an environmentalist, but rather as somebody who was working on different human rights in African countries: rights to help women’s issues, peace and security, corporate responsibility and decent work issues. And everywhere I went – this was between 2002 and 2010 – I heard a sentence which began, “Ah, but things are so much worse…” It was about weather shocks; it was about prolonged drought and about shortage of water, about huge human rights issues.
And that’s why I established this Foundation. And we call it ‘Climate Justice’, starting with the injustice that climate is affecting most those who are least responsible, and they need much, much more attention to adaptation and to clean energy. Off-grid energy will help the poorest to cope well and actually take themselves out of poverty.
And there’s a huge connection, in a way, with my mandate as Special Envoy now for the Great Lakes: I went on a first mission to Kinshasa and Goma [in the Democratic Republic of Congo], to Kigali in Rwanda, to Kampala in Uganda, to Bujumbura in Burundi. And everywhere, the peace and security issue, and then the climate – it came up.
So we need to have a concurrent approach.
Mary Robinson: I think one is exacerbating the other. And in conflict-affected countries, they also, by and large, are climate-vulnerable countries – part of the injustice of how our rich lifestyles and use of fossil fuels are contributing now to undermining [efforts to address] poverty.
Chuo-Koron: President Ahtisaari, you have played an important role as a United Nations Special Envoy, resolving many conflicts in Namibia, Aceh, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, among others. And you received the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s quite often said that one man’s hero is another man’s enemy. What are the most important factors in international conflict resolution? Why have you been so successful?
Martti Ahtisaari: First of all, you have to get the support of the countries whose support is absolutely vital. When we look at the situation today in Syria, for instance, if you don’t get the permanent members of the Security Council to back you up in a really concrete way, how could you, as a mediator, act? It doesn’t work that way. So I learned it very early on, and I have been able to – perhaps not always using the Permanent Five to support me, but individual governments among them.
And Namibia is a marvellous example, because I said that we had an ‘unholy alliance’ there. There was a demand – the American administration demanded – that the Cuban troops leave because that was the only way to get South Africa – the old South Africa – to move, and allow the UN to go and monitor and supervise the elections in Namibia that led to Namibia’s independence.
So the Cubans said, “Yes, we agree, even if this has nothing to do with Namibia.” Their troops were in Angola. The Angolans said, “Yes, this is fine for us.” And the Soviet Union supported that. So I never forget this, because if you could get all these to do that which made it possible for me and 8,000 UN people to go to Namibia, you also have to be flexible in that sense.
And why have you been so successful?
Martti Ahtisaari: Perhaps my best trademark is that when I have a new assignment, I try to pick the best people in the world to help me because the teams are small. And it is important that you have people who can do certain things which you can’t. You can’t cover everything.
The mediator, in my mind, is in charge of strategic planning. I have to know where the process has to go, because if I don’t know, then nobody else knows – then I shouldn’t be there. And I have been very lucky, and I have very faithful colleagues.
Now, we are in Ireland… So I can say that when I had my first experience with the Irish police officers who were helping me in Namibia, I took them to many other missions which I carried out because I knew that I could trust them, and they could do the work which was needed. So that’s how you have to approach these things; don’t think that you know everything – then, you are in the wrong business.
Mary Robinson: You notice how carefully I’m listening, [laughter] because this is the first time I have a big assignment as a special envoy. I’m listening to a maestro and expert here! [Ahtisaari laughs]
Japan at the moment is having territorial issues with Russia, China and South Korea. This situation may turn out to be rather difficult because every time those leaders condemned Japan, their approval ratings shot up. How can we approach this kind of issue peacefully? Do you have any advice for the Japanese government to deal with this problem?
Martti Ahtisaari: I don’t easily give advice, except, perhaps a general one: it’s always good to realise that that sort of support is very short-lived. If one, as a government, thinks that – if you make statements and appear to be nationalistic – it’s a very short-lived victory. I trust that every political leader in the world approaches these sorts of issues wisely, because I think it would be a major failure if it would lead to any military actions on these sorts of issues.
I would like to see Japan, for instance, as a permanent member of the Security Council because the reform of the Security Council is long overdue. And therefore I’m expecting responsible behaviour from Japan and from all the others who are involved in this debate. Cool analysis, talks, dialogue… and if they need friends to help in that sort of process, I think that that is always possible.
Chuo-Koron: It is quite often said, “Poverty falls as women rise.” 70 per cent of the world’s poor are women and girls, and two thirds of world’s illiterate are women. You have been working hard on women’s issues. Why do you think women’s issues are so important?
Mary Robinson: I think, now, any good development expert would say without any hesitation, “Educate girls and women, and any country will make much more progress.” It’s the best way to help development. And so we have to address all the issues that prevent that.
And I’m sorry to say that there’s an increasing fundamentalism in some countries that is actually holding women back. And there’s a fundamentalism in reproductive health – even in the US and other parts – that is undermining the need to ensure that there’s education of girls and women, health services that work, and emphasis on reproductive health and family planning.
I, until recently, chaired the Global Leaders Council on Reproductive Health. And that brought me to Malawi in January, because President Joyce Banda is a member of that Council, and we had some very good people with us – Joy Phumaphi from Botswana, who has a long record in health – and we were looking at the situation in Malawi, which is a lovely country with beautiful people, but a very poor agricultural country.
What struck me… I identified with the population of Malawi in the 1960s, because it was the same as the Republic of Ireland – three million. We’ve gone up to about 4.6 million in this part of the country, separate from Northern Ireland; Malawi has gone up to about 16 million. But everybody predicts – the World Bank, UN – that by 2050, the population will be 50 million; by the end of the century, it will be 120 million. And most of the farmers are women; they are very severely affected by more drought in one part, and much more flooding in another part – it’s a vulnerable country to climate. So this is the pressure of the need to address this.
And I was happy recently that my Foundation, the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, and the Irish government during the Irish EU presidency had an EU presidency conference here in Dublin on hunger, nutrition and climate justice. Of the 300 participants, 100 were from grassroots communities around the world.
It was really very vibrant and interesting, because for the first time, those who work on food security in their communities were talking to policy makers. And the extraordinary thing was that the policy makers, for the first time, were listening to those who know the answer. And I think that’s the climate justice approach and the human rights approach; we really need to do it for the very strong gender dimension. I think the Elders share that very, very strongly.
Martti Ahtisaari: I very much share the same views. First of all, it’s a total waste if the women are not given a chance, because then, we would omit their capabilities.
I always say that charity has to start at home, so if I look at my own organisation, the CEO of Crisis Management Initiative – which I founded after my presidency in 2000 – is a woman. The majority of the people working there are women – not because they are women, but because they have the necessary competence. And more than half of the entrants to universities today in Helsinki, for instance, are women. So we can’t waste their talent. I share that passion with Mary – very much so – because if we fail in that, then we fail in development.
Mary Robinson: Perhaps one more thing that I think is relevant to your question… Women in countries of conflict have always felt they’re not at the table. They are, in fact, the local peacemakers, but when it comes to the talks, it’s bad men talking to bad men, and almost forgiving each other! [Laughter] And it’s the women who are trying to hold their communities together.
There was this Security Council Resolution 1325 – we’ve just marked the 10th anniversary of it in 2010 – that said that women had to be more at the peace table; there had to be more women SRSGs [Special Representatives of the UN Secretary-General], as Martti has been.
And I am the first woman to be a Special Envoy, and I’m going to do it differently in the Great Lakes. I’ve already reached out to these women’s groups that I know, and I’m going to have them as a real bottom-up pressure on their governments. And they are so pleased. I mean, the response when I met the women in the four countries was, “Yes! We want to do this.” So women can also be agents of change.
Mary Robinson hears from women peace-builders in Burundi, August 2013
The same problem applies to developed countries, too.
Mary Robinson: Yes, Yes.
Chuo-Koron: The International Tribunal and the International Criminal Court (ICC) are great ideas. But at the moment, Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor can be tried, but not George W Bush, nor Tony Blair, nor Henry Kissinger. How can we eliminate this double standard, and make these institutions international in their true sense?
Martti Ahtisaari: First of all, I think we have to get all the countries to join these institutions and accept their jurisdiction. Of course, we haven’t had any conflicts inside the United States that should demand the action of the… But I see your point. I think it’s important that we get started, and hopefully we advance so that no one escapes if we need to take people to the International Court.
Mary Robinson: And if I could just say, in the context of the Great Lakes, it was really significant that one of the people who was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, Bosco Ntaganda, actually entered Rwanda and went to the US Embassy. And it was the US Embassy, with the support of the government of Rwanda, that handed him over. He actually asked to be handed over to The Hague, because he was afraid of being killed otherwise. When I was there, everybody talked about it, so the fact that the ICC is there is actually very useful, very important.
Martti Ahtisaari: It’s preventive already.
Mary Robinson: Yes, yes.
Henry Kissinger said, “The average person thinks morality can be applied to the conduct of states as directly as towards individuals. But that is not always the case, because sometimes a statesman must choose among evils.” Also, President Richard Nixon famously said, “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal. If it’s secret, it’s legal.”
What are your thoughts on this disparity between individual morality and government morality? In fact, one can be sentenced to life in jail for killing one person, whereas someone else can kill thousands under the name of a ‘just war’.
Mary Robinson: Well, as a human rights person, I’ve always felt that we tolerate far too much impunity; we don’t deal well with major crises that create huge deaths of individuals. I think it is the case that there is too much realpolitik in diplomacy, and not enough holding to account. Now more and more, as power is shifting to the corporate sector, it’s going to be extraordinarily important that we hold corporations to account.
Our new Chair, Kofi Annan, has just published a report with the Africa Progress Panel on the extractive industries in Africa – in particular, in the Great Lakes – showing the complicity with corporations and political figures. So I think we just need to be more rigorous, address issues of impunity and have less of a double standard, as you say.
I opposed very strongly – as High Commissioner for Human Rights and afterwards – the war in Iraq, very publicly. And even in my last year, which was the year after 9/11, I held the United States to account for failing to observe its own commitments under the covenants on civil and political rights and the Convention against Torture.
It was a little bit lonely – there weren’t too many voices – but for me, it was essential, because if you have double standards, you undermine the morality and integrity of human rights.
Martti Ahtisaari: First of all, I think it’s important that we get away from unilateral actions. We are not talking any more of humanitarian intervention. I think there was a very positive development when, for the first time, the General Assembly decision of 2005 – the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ – was utilised by the Security Council in the case of Libya. It was the first time that the international community used that decision. Because if leaders misbehave, then the international community has a responsibility to do something about it, and not simply look aside.
Let’s see when the next decision of the Security Council will come, because it may take some time. This was the first attempt but I thought that that was a historic thing as such, and hopefully we can get decisions before interventions take place.
So the less the disparity between the individual and public, the better. That’s the way to go…?
Martti Ahtisaari: I think we have a long way to go to get the ‘individual morality’ in its place.
Chuo-Koron: According to the annual survey of Transparency International, the least corrupt nations are Denmark, Finland and New Zealand – and Sweden and Norway are also ranked among the least. On the other hand, poor nations like Somalia, North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar and Afghanistan ranked as the most corrupt nations.
Why did the Scandinavian countries succeed in getting rid of corruption? You mentioned that Nordic countries have particular responsibilities in mediating between countries in conflict. Why?
Martti Ahtisaari: First of all, when I look at the world today – I tend to say this when I simplify – I say that we don’t need raw capitalism in today’s world; we don’t need any sort of socialism. We need responsible market economies, which we have developed in Nordic societies as a responsible welfare model. It has taken us a long, long time.
We are very small societies; my own country is 5.3 or 5.4 million in population. But it’s also important, and I would draw a lesson from the Nordics. The first lesson from Nordic countries: that we have accepted… all of us – even if some political groups weren’t thriving – egalitarian policies in our society. We have good education, good health care, etc.
And I think it is important that we not only pay attention in the world to how well the elections are organised, but also to what those who come to power do with their power. Are they actually running, using the growth that the country may have to improve the educational system for all – and particularly to get girls a proper education? If the egalitarian policies are not carried out, then it easily leads to conflicts inside the countries as well, because people feel that they have totally been forgotten.
So leadership is very crucial…
Martti Ahtisaari: It’s the leadership.
As the first female President of Ireland (1990-1997), you have made many, many breakthroughs, such as paying tribute to the people in Belfast in Northern Ireland, which was unheard of; visiting Queen Elizabeth II, the first time for an Irish President after 800 years of bitter memories of colonisation; and also visiting Somalia and Rwanda, and bringing the world’s attention to those neglected areas.
Why do you think you could do what nobody else could? How did you deal with criticism, disappointment, and resistance towards your work?
Mary Robinson: [Laughter] I think I was quite fortunate at the time. I was elected in 1990; Ireland was becoming more prosperous. I had been identified with opening up Irish society, changing our laws to have more diversity and pluralism. And at the same time, some of my issues would have been ones that people in Ireland – a lot of conservative people – might not have supported.
So my election, in a way, affirmed that Ireland was a more open society; it had a signal. And being a woman, I felt very strongly that I could do it differently, more proactively, than the six presidents before me who had been rather elderly men, and who had been eminent. But the presidency was sort of a reward for eminence and not very proactive.
And I was very committed to the promises I made in my inauguration address, and one of them was in fact to try to represent an Irish concern for human rights. And I remember on my inauguration day, saying to myself, “How am I going to do that? What do I mean?” you know, “I’ve said I’m going to…” And, as it happened, there were a lot of Irish aid agencies in Somalia, and they said the situation was desperate, in 1992, because there are fighting warlords and the food can’t get to Baidoa and Mogadishu, etc. And if I could come as President and go to the United Nations, that would make a big difference. And that was my first time going in that way.
I was then the first Head of State to go to Rwanda in 1994. I went back in 1995, because I was asked to represent Ireland at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, and I knew that that would be rhetorical speeches, praising, etc., and I wanted to bring Rwanda to the table – the post-genocidal society – and the hinterland now in Goma and beyond. And the interesting thing was that my third invitation to Rwanda was to a pan-African women’s conference. So all of these things influenced me, and these are very relevant to what I’m doing now.
I remember a particularly significant state visit to Japan because it was just after the Kobe earthquake, and we almost thought that the visit would be postponed. The imperial family used my state visit to come out after the earthquake. It was really very interesting. And the Empress had been educated by Sacred Heart nuns as I was, and I had met her before – we had a kind of link. But it was really interesting to help Japan to come out of the trauma of that terrible earthquake, and to hear some of the stories and the commitment, etc. And I know Japan has recently gone through an even worse trauma… But I thought that there was great resilience, and I was very affected by that visit. It was also a very good trade visit, I have to say [laughs], between Ireland and Japan.
This is the first of a two-part interview with Martti Ahtisaari and Mary Robinson, carried out by Japanese current affairs magazine Chuo-Koron. Read the second part of the interview.