Former Laureates

Mary Robinson


The theme for the Erasmus Prize in 1999 was ‘Collective Responsibility’. At the time, Ireland's Mary Robinson (1944) was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Before then she was Professor of European Law at Trinity College Dublin, senator, member of the International Commission of Jurists, and President of the Republic of Ireland. She was awarded the prize for the way in which she has embodied the concept of ‘collective responsibility’ in all the positions she has held. As a jurist she always insisted that attention be given to minority rights and that these rights be upheld, stressing that respect for human rights is part of the collective responsibility of all citizens. She has worked especially hard for women's rights and women's liberation. She has demonstrated how the high moral standards she has set for political behaviour can be put into practice with wisdom, courage and pragmatism. When her term as High Commissioner ended in 2002, Mary Robinson became chair of the Ethical Globalization Initiative, an organisation which promotes equitable trade and development, more humane migration policies, and more effective action to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa. The organisation also works for better governance in developing countries and promotes women's leadership. Since 2004 she also holds a professorship at Columbia University in Practice in International Affairs.

Mary Robinson donated her Erasmus Prize money to the Ethical Globalization Initiative.


In accordance with article 2 of the constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation concerning the enhancement of the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts and the promotion of appreciation of these fields within society, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Patron of the Foundation, has confirmed the decision of the Board of the Foundation to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 1999 to Mary Robinson.

The prize is awarded to Mrs Robinson on the following grounds:

  • At a time when ethical values tend to be made subordinate to policies dominated by market and power orientations, Mrs Robinson is untiring in her efforts to promote fundamental values and to defend these against claims that they cannot be considered universal.

  • She has called attention to the rights of minorities and the enforcement of these rights, at local, national and international levels, and emphasized that in civil society respect for the enforcement of human rights should be part of every citizen's collective responsibility.

  • As a lawyer and politician, she has given a strong impetus to the emancipation of women, arguing that women's rights are an essential component of human rights.

  • As a university professor of law, she has instilled in students a sense of European citizenship and enthusiasm for Europe.

  • She has taken an active part in bringing Irish society closer to that of continental Europe, by her successful efforts to introduce European law into the legal system.

  • Mrs Robinson upholds ethical standards for political conduct and has shown the world how to put these into practice, with wisdom, courage, and pragmatism.

  • As President of the Republic of Ireland, she has shown how the function of the presidency can be used in order to smooth political controversies.

  • Mary Robinson fulfils her assignment as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in an admirable manner: she demands respect for such fundamental values as human dignity, engaging in battle with the skills of an international politician and the tenacity of an activist, driven by the power of arguments.

  • In conclusion: by awarding the prize to Mary Robinson, we also implicitly manifest our appreciation of the work of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.


read by A.H.G. Rinnooy Kan

Dear Mrs Robinson,

Usually the laudatio is enunciated by the Patron of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. This time the Patron feels that physical inconveniences might make it hard for him to complete this speech himself, a speech for which he considers it necessary to have a strong and powerful voice. For this reason the Patron proposed that, exceptionally, the chairman of the Foundation should read the laudatio on his behalf. I cannot hope to make the same impact with my presentation as the Prince of the Netherlands, but I shall attempt to convey the message, which is his personal message to you.

This year the area, in which the winner of the Erasmus Prize was sought was defined in broad terms, so broad in fact that it was hard to demarcate and formulate concisely. I am referring to the concept of 'collective responsibility' or, more specifically, the awareness that as a member of a group one has responsibilities towards others. This is an ethical concept, rather than a legal one. It covers many fields on many levels, from the family and the local community to the nation state. Few people will disagree with the contention that, to make democracy work, this kind of responsibility is a crucial piece of the baggage of individual citizens in civil society. It is, however, not easy to articulate in terms of an individual's duty.

In academic terms, we are speaking of virtue ethics. Ethics of virtue are based upon ideals that one may endeavour to attain. Collective responsibilities can be articulated more easily as ideals and values rather than as sharply formulated rules of conduct. Awareness of collective responsibilities does not come naturally to all individual citizens alike. This consciousness has to be cherished and stimulated by governments, institutions, churches and individuals. In actual fact, non-governmental organisations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists, have enabled individual citizens to translate their feeling of responsibility into practical conduct and to do something to help, however small. By focussing attention on a limited number of specific fields - political prisoners, economic exploitation, etc. - these organisations have at the same time strengthened the awareness of collective responsibilities.

But the cause of collective responsibility also needs charismatic individuals. Persons who by their influence, their power of persuasion, and their knowledge of legal and political possibilities, are able to show the way; who keep reminding the rulers of their responsibilities; who continue to test their conduct against the declarations and conventions to which they have committed themselves on paper.

You, Mrs Robinson, are such a person. We admire you for what you have achieved, and for the great effort you have made, and continue to make, in fighting inequality, making structural  improvements in power structures, and reminding the world of its moral duties. I refer, of course, to your work as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. But not exclusively. In your previous assignments you have equally pushed hard to introduce the kind of societal reforms that are needed to make this a more righteous world. You have forced the Irish legal system to adopt European laws, you have given Irish women a voice, and during your seven years' presidency of Ireland, you stretched the limits of the role of the president and gave it more than symbolical content.

Several publications have marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most of these papers recognise the pre-eminent ideological status of human rights, but many are also pessimistic about the viability of the ideals, given the disjunction between the theory and practice of human rights. Exactly ten years ago, the Erasmus Prize was awarded to the International Commission of Jurists. In the speech on that occasion, the hope was expressed that 'perhaps out of necessity, a new feeling for humanity and human rights was on the horizon, a feeling that included the whole of mankind and would contribute to enriching the sense of world consciousness'. This was at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall. With hindsight, we must concede that many of us had not foreseen that within ten years from then Europe would see its most bloody conflict since the Second World War. I am referring, of course, to events in the Balkans. Meanwhile, we cannot close our eyes to the wars and violation of rights in other parts of the world. To mention one example: While our eyes were focussed on events in the Balkans this year, you, Mrs Robinson, went to Sierra Leone and drew the world's attention to the atrocities committed in the civil war which has ravaged that country. This is but one case of the human rights dilemma that arises if perpetrators of crimes are admitted to government as part of a local solution. Once in government, it is even more difficult to hold them responsible for their deeds. There are many examples of a mismatch between the high ideals embodied in the human rights conventions and the actual outcomes. These give rise to cynicism, and are also a source for anxiety. Some authors have raised the question of whether the human rights apparatus has perhaps itself become an instrument in the legitimisation of certain forms of hegemonic power. We must hope it has not. On the other hand, it would be naive to believe that the status of human rights could be understood unless politics and power are added to the debate. In your present office, you play this immensely difficult role: you influence political power - individual politicians and states - by wielding moral power, and you maintain human rights as the focus of collective responsibility. In your view, the human rights issue cannot be separated from the political system and must be defined as including economic and social as well as cultural and political rights. Clearly, many regimes in the world still find their own reasons for resisting this view.

I wish to conclude my speech on a personal note. The first chapter in your biography, the chapter about your youth, ends with the following statement - words I have no qualms about quoting, as it is an authorised biography - "This is how she would be all her life - independent-minded and uncompromising, not one of life's natural mediators". I have pondered over this verdict 'not one of life's natural mediators'. Certainly, much of your work as High Commissioner for Human Rights will require bringing parties into contact, but mediation also smacks of giving a little here and taking a little there. If there is something non-negotiable, it must be the case of human rights. I think we are fortunate in having not one of life's natural mediators, but one of life's natural activists in that place. It is in recognition of your untiring commitment to the cause of the equality of human beings, to the cause of righteousness and collective responsibility, that I have the honour and the pleasure of presenting you with the 1999 Erasmus Prize.

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to be the recipient of the 1999 Erasmus Prize. It is difficult to know how to respond to the words of praise, which I have heard, and to the wording of the citation. However, I am heartened by the fact that the focus this year has been on collective responsibility. There is collective responsibility for the fact that I am here today! Perhaps the best response I can make is to thank you for this prize and to say that in honouring me you honour all those who defend human rights - often at great personal risk - and that I dedicate this prize to their name.

His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard was kind enough in his text to refer to my term of office as President of Ireland. In fact I was elected on 9 November 1990, the first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and my election I believe, symbolised for many the opening up of Irish society. Looking back, I can say that it was a most exciting time to serve as Head of State of a country experiencing such momentous change as Ireland has seen in recent years. People find an air of prosperity and confidence about modern Ireland, reflecting the fact that success has been achieved through hard work, prudent management of the national finances and the far-sightedness of investing in education, thus enabling the country's young workforce to reap the benefits of the technological revolution.

In 1625 Hugo Grotius wrote, what was probably the first comprehensive treatise on international law, his work On the Law of War and Peace. It is sobering to think that Grotius was seeking all those years ago to establish rules of behaviour for nations and individuals and then to recall what terrible conflicts have occurred since his day. It is sobering, too, to consider the issues on the agenda of the two Hague Peace Conferences of a century ago - arms control, humanitarian law, the peaceful settlement of disputes - and to have to acknowledge that we are still far from finding lasting solutions to these problems at the end of this very violent century.

Hard questions are being asked these days about human rights. I welcome that. If human rights are to work, their rationale and effectiveness must stand up to the closest scrutiny. Hard questions are being asked about the gap between the ideals of the human rights movement and the evidence appearing before us daily that shows how far respect for human rights is from being embedded in society. In this year alone we have witnessed gross human rights violations in Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone and the Great Lakes region, to mention only some of the worst instances. The placing of human rights centre stage in public life must produce tangible improvements if there is not to be an erosion of credibility and a rise in cynicism. I believe that the greatest challenges which lie ahead - securing peace and development, channelling the forces of globalisation productively, coping with the rapidly changing world we live in - must all be grounded in respect for human rights. The message of human rights is clear. It says to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised: "You are not alone. You are not powerless. You have rights which are universal and fundamental". Solid progress has been made over the past fifty years in standard setting. Now we face the even greater challenge of putting those principles into practice.

I return to the rubric under which this prize is awarded which is collective responsibility. I was saying to Her Majesty beforehand that I welcomed the challenge of addressing collective responsibility, because we often focus on individual human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights spells out the importance of this concept when it refers in the Preamble to the fact that: "The peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom". The Preamble goes on to say that: "Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms".

These concepts of collective responsibility, and the determination to act collectively on the basis of those responsibilities, are also spelled out in Articles 55 and 56 of the United Nations Charter. As far as the individual's responsibilities are concerned, champions of human rights have recognised that, just as we possess rights simply by virtue of being human, so also we have responsibilities to those around us. There is an understandable hesitation to place too much emphasis on responsibilities and duties because unscrupulous regimes have been known to argue that duties to the State are more important than the rights of the individual.  The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights considered listing parallel responsibilities or duties to match the rights they proclaimed, but they realised that this might qualify or relativise fundamental rights. So the issue of duties was encapsulated in one article, Article 29 which states that: "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible". Article 29 makes it clear that our rights are not entirely unrestricted. It goes on to say that: "In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in democratic society". In my view, Article 29 gives sufficient guidance as to the responsibilities of individuals and the balance that should be struck between individual freedom and the rights of our fellow human beings. As I see it, human rights are all about collective responsibility. Their underlying message is that we belong to one global community and that we are responsible for what happens in that community. A few weeks ago, when the crisis in East Timor was at its height, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney said something which struck me as especially relevant. He said: "Everybody has felt the pity and the terror of the tragedy. But I think that we have also experienced something more revealing, which is a feeling of being called upon, a feeling of being answerable".

That 'feeling of being answerable' is a way of saying that we are responsible for the rights of others, and not just for our own rights. It is a key factor in the struggle to establish human rights in society. We have responsibilities, both as individuals and as members of groups, to the people we live and work with, to our country, to the global community. That is what motivates courageous women and men to speak out when governments abuse the rights of citizens. That is what makes us listen when non-governmental organisations shed light on violations and shortcomings. The onus on governments to discharge their responsibilities is clear. Governments may have ceded some of their powers to market forces over which they have little control but they also retain far-reaching powers over citizens. The human rights message to governments is: you should rule wisely and respect the rights of the ruled because these rights are not yours to give or take. When they act responsibly, when they are guided by leaders with vision, governments have the power to do great good. I think of those post-war European leaders who recognised that the cycle of conflict on this Continent must be ended and joined together in the great enterprise that is now the European Union. That is an outstanding example of collective responsibility, though the task of ensuring a peaceful Europe will not be complete as long as conflict rages in the Balkans.

We should not think of human rights as something abstract or for other people far away. In a very true sense human rights begin at home. As Dag Hammarskjöld put it: "The great commitment all too easily obscures the little one. But without the humility and warmth which you have to develop in your relations to the few with whom you are personally involved, you will never be able to do anything for the many". The more I see of human rights in action, the more convinced I become of the value of collective action at local, grassroots level. Reference has been made to my visit to Sierra Leone in June. One of the terrible aspects of the violence there, particularly in January and February of this year, was the systematic rape of young girls. But I was deeply impressed to meet a Sierra Leone representative of the Federation of African Women in Education (fawe) who was counselling ninety rape victims in Freetown. She had worked with young girls before the crisis and they simply came to her door, and she responded and was determined that her colleagues throughout Sierra Leone would respond as peace was restored. That to me is a great example of real collective responsibility. It was out of recognition of the importance of grassroots human rights activity that my Office established a special fund last year, marking the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, to create a kind of microcredit support for human rights work. 

There are three strategies, which I would like to emphasise as having a particular role in strengthening the culture of human rights. The first is prevention. Prevention of human rights violations must become a greater priority than it is at present. Prevention is a normal part of our lives in so many ways but where conflicts are concerned it tends to be honoured on paper but not in practice. We should be alive to the huge advantages of heading off human rights violations before they happen and apply the sophisticated preventive habits we know so well at home to the field of conflict prevention.

The second area is accountability. Accountability is really a form of prevention since it signals that those who commit gross violations of human rights will not get away with it. There are encouraging signs that national judicial authorities are taking the position that grave human rights violations must be accounted for, wherever, whenever and by whomever they were committed. And a major advance has been made with the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In that context I would like to pay tribute to the impressive contribution made over the years by the Netherlands to the development of an effective international criminal justice system.

The third strategy I would support is greater emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights. This set of rights gets less attention than the better known civil and political rights but I am convinced that an enduring culture of human rights cannot take root where access to food, to education and even to basic healthcare is denied. Whether the description of me as 'independent-minded and uncompromising but not one of life's natural mediators' is accurate or not is hard for me to say. The first part I can agree with, the second I must leave to others to judge. I am happy, though, to accept His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard's description of me as 'one of life's natural activists'. As he said, human rights are too important to be negotiable. Much of my work will, of its nature, be conducted privately with governments. I will not raise my voice to make public comments if quiet diplomacy will achieve results. But neither will I compromise or hesitate to speak out if the occasion demands. In my position as High Commissioner for Human Rights I have assumed a burden of listening: listening to the pain and anguish of victims of violations; listening to the anxieties and fears of human rights defenders. I will go on listening and will continue to speak out for those who have no voice or whose voice is ignored.

Let me conclude by quoting from Aung San Suu Kyi, who in a very true sense lives the values she advocates: "At the root of human responsibility is the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitations and environmental impediments. It is man's vision of a world fit for rational, civilised humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power".

Thank you again for this prize which I value and treasure very much. The monetary side of it will go in the collective responsibility of my office towards indigenous people, and I know that they will appreciate that very much. Thank you.

Erasmus Prize Award Ceremony 1999

The Erasmus Prize was awarded in 1999 to Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland.