The White House is defending the selection of Mary Robinson as a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.
"Mary Robinson has dedicated her career to human rights and working to improve an imperfect world," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor Friday afternoon. "As with any public figure, we don’t necessarily agree with every statement she has ever made, but it’s clear that she has been an agent of change and a fighter for good."
A White House official added that the administration was standing behind the choice, but would not be getting into the deliberations over her selection.
The Robinson selection has drawn criticism from some supporters of Israel, particularly on the right, primarily because of Robinson’s role in the 2001 Durban anti-racism conference. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, she presided over the conference and was seen by Jewish groups as not doing enough to stop the expressions of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel actions at the event.
For example, the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) wrote in 2002 that "much of the responsibility for the debacle rests on the shoulders" of Robinson, who "in her role as secretary general of the conference, failed to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track."
Robinson also was a strong critic of Israel’s use of force against the Palestinians during her time at the UN.
(One Robinson criticism does seem, though, a bit overheated. The charge in the articles linked above, that she was president of Ireland when the European Union sent millions of dollars in aid to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority — some of which was found later to have been diverted to fund terrorism — is true, but Robinson wasn’t making EU policy by herself. John Major was the prime minister of Great Britain back then, and Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterand were the presidents of France. They and the rest of the EU would be as much to blame as Robinson.)
One supporter of the Robinson selection did point to this article from the Jerusalem Post to argue that Robinson did make efforts to fight anti-Semitism at the conference. The article reports that "waving a book of anti-Semitic cartoons distributed at the anti-racism conference in Durban, UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson – in a dramatic act of identification with the Jews vilified in the pamphlet – declared "I am a Jew" at an NGO dinner there Wednesday night."
On the other hand, according to Lantos, in discussions during the conference she "refused to reject the twisted notion that the wrong done to the Jews in the Holocaust was equivalent to the pain suffered by the Palestinians in the Middle East. Instead, she discussed "the historical wounds of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust on the one hand and … the accumulated wounds of displacement and military occupation on the other."