GENEVA — The United Nations' top human rights official announced Monday she was stepping down from her post, saying severe shortage in funding hampered her agency's work and she could do more outside the "constraints" of the U.N. system.
Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said she would leave office at the end of her four-year term in September.
"I believe that I can achieve more outside the constraints that a multilateral organization inevitably imposes," Robinson said.
Robinson, a former Irish president, said she had told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan of her decision and wanted to announce it early so there would be time to find a new high commissioner.
After making the announcement during the opening session of the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission, Robinson said she would stay in office until the end of the World Conference on Racism, which opens Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa.
"This has not been an easy decision to make, and I know it is one that may surprise and perhaps disappoint many," she said. "I know some will feel that I should have sought to continue working from within the United Nations and I ask them to respect my decision."
Robinson, who has been increasingly outspoken about rights violations, is the second person to hold the job of high commissioner, following the tenure of Ecuadorean diplomat Jose Ayala Lasso.
She said her office was dramatically short of funding, receiving 2 percent of the United Nations' $1 billion annual budget. Last year, her office for the first time issued an appeal directly to governments and received $44 million — more than twice the allocation from the U.N. budget.
Many governments were unwilling to provide extra funding because they believed — rightly — that human rights was part of the core work of the United Nations and should be funded directly, Robinson said. "I will go on advocating the need for adequate resources," Robinson said.
In her speech, Robinson pressed the world's governments to fight against racial discrimination as a way of improving rights for people across the world.
Racism was "of the highest significance" because it leads to other human rights violations, she said.
"Racism and xenophobia — manifesting themselves through discrimination and all forms of intolerance — are the wellspring of many of the world's conflicts," said Robinson.
She pointed to the rise of ethnic fighting in Macedonia, which, she said, could threaten the stability of the troubled Balkans region.
"During the past month alone, hundreds have been killed in Borneo, Burundi and countless other parts of the world on the grounds of their ethnicity," Robinson added.
China, Russia and Israel will be among the countries put under the spotlight by the commission during its six-week session.
European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to support a U.N. draft resolution to be debated at the commission meeting that is expected to condemn China's poor record on human rights. But they backed away from cosponsoring it, despite a request from Secretary of State Colin Powell to do so.
Ambassador Leandro Despouy of Argentina was elected president of the commission on Monday.