Mary Robinson travels to Johannesburg for a meeting of the Elders called by Nelson Mandela.

The Elders, a peace and human rights advocacy group, are truly international, with members from the four corners of the world.  

One of them is Mary Robinson, former first woman President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002.

Mary Robinson has a deep connection with Africa.  Her 1992 visit to the continent during her presidency made a lasting impression.  But it is the gap between the world’s rich and poor which is of most concern to her,

Even in the most remote rural village in Africa, there’s probably one television, so they can see how the other half lives.

The idea for the Elders came from Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel, who thought that as many communities look to their older members for help and guidance, a small group of committed individuals could use their experience and influence when it comes to tackling the major issues in the world today.  

Richard Branson says that when Nelson Mandela was looking for people who would fit the bill, Mary Robinson came to mind,

She is 100 per cent committed to anything that she does.  I mean, human rights, this couldn’t have a better leader.  And she cares, you know, cares just massively.

Mary Robinson herself admits to initially being slightly sceptical of the whole idea of the Elders.  But after she met with Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça Machel, she was fully committed,

He was very clear about what he wanted.  He wanted us to be humble, to listen, to not go to places with our ideas of what needed to be done, to really listen to what they felt was the problem.

Graça Machel was the first Minister of Education and Culture in Mozambique.  An international advocate for women and children’s rights, and herself an Elder, she feels that Mary Robinson has much in common with her husband Nelson Mandela,

Mary has embodied the issue of human rights in respect to the other.  Now it has become part of herself... She has a very deep sense of serving.

Mary Robinson was appointed Chair of the Elders on 1 November 2018.

This episode of ‘Would You Believe’ was broadcast on 7 December 2008.  The reporter is Róisín Duffy.