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Mary Robinson, New UN Special Envoy for Central Africa?

Mary Robinson of The Elders
Mary Robinson, a former UN high commissioner for human rights and president of Ireland, is now a philanthropist and a member of The Elders, the group of former world leaders striving for global peace. MATI MILSTEIN/THE ELDERS

Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland, United Nations high commissioner for human rights and philanthropist, is said to be the main candidate for the new United Nations special envoy post for the Great Lakes region in central Africa. The area generally covers Burundi, northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and some parts of Tanzania and Kenya.

An announcement from the UN secretary-general’s office is expected this week. The Irish Times reported that the former African Union chairman, Jean Ping of Gabon, and the former Tanzanian president, Benjamin Mkapa, are also candidates. The special envoy would complement the role of the UN special representative in Congo, Roger Meece, an American.

Robinson, 68, has a foundation in her name based in Dublin that focuses on “climate justice.” She was the first woman to become a president of Ireland, a largely ceremonial role she held for seven years, and then was the UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002. She is now a member of The Elders, the group of former world leaders working on peace and social issues; the members include Kofi Annan, who was a UN secretary-general and a UN-Arab League special envoy for Syria. Robinson is a vocal advocate for women’s high-level involvement in peace talks and government leadership.

Her office in Dublin would not provide comment on her candidacy. At a UN media briefing recently, a Reuters reporter asked Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the UN, if Robinson was a “good choice” for the regional post. Rice replied: “With respect to the secretary-general’s choice for special envoy for the Great Lakes region, I’d prefer to wait until his decision is taken and agreed by the countries concerned and announced and at that point, I”m happy to comment. But obviously we – I and the United States has great respect for Mary Robinson.”

If picked, Robinson will join several other women representing the UN in its most important jobs in Africa. Karin Landgren of Sweden is the special representative for the UN in Liberia, after holding the same job in Burundi. Hilde Johnson of Norway is the special envoy in South Sudan; and Margaret Vogt of Nigeria and Kaarina Immonen of Finland operate the UN mission in Central African Republic.

The Great Lakes post will be tasked with overseeing the new UN-sponsored peace pact, signed in February among Great Lakes area countries. The framework is meant to ensure that Congo’s neighboring countries do not interfere in its internal politics and to clean up Congo’s corrupt security apparatus. Eastern Congo has been in conflict, on and off, for decades. The UN is also creating a “robust” peacekeeping brigade, the first of its kind, to add military weight to the peacekeeping force, known as Monusco, already present in the country.

Robinson, who grew up Roman Catholic in western Ireland the only girl in her family, surrounded by four brothers, has been touring the US to promote her new memoir, “Everybody Matters: My Life Giving Voice.”  In an interview on WGBH in Boston, she describes her thinking as a young woman on joining the nunnery because she had an aunt who was a nun in India “who did incredible things,” and how Robinson wanted “a purpose in life” like boys and men in Ireland, but not so for women and girls, she said. A mother superior advised her to take a year off and travel instead, so Robinson went to Paris, where she “began to be encouraged to think, in a way that I hadn’t been in Ireland.”

She skipped the nunnery for Irish politics and grander roles.

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Dulcie Leimbach is the founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal) as well as from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, NHK’s English channel and Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. She has also worked as an editorial consultant to various UN agencies. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver before she worked in New York at Esquire magazine and Adweek. In between, she was a Wall Street foreign-exchange dealer. Leimbach has been a fellow at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and was a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

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