Elaine Byrne: Robinson should have known better on the plight of Princess Latifa

The former president showed an extraordinary lack of curiosity about the wellbeing of the detained Arab princess

Elaine Byrne
February 21, 2021, Business Post

“As a woman, I want women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history.” So said Mary Robinson in her famous “Mná na hÉireann” speech in 1990, when she became Ireland’s first female president.

That historic speech is very much at odds with Robinson’s extraordinary lack of curiosity around the wellbeing of an Arab princess.

Last week, the BBC Panorama programme aired secret phone recordings by Princess Latifa which revealed the details of her kidnapping and covert detention by her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

The James Bond-esque saga began in February 2018 when the then 32-year-old princess attempted to escape the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She was driven in the boot of a car out of Dubai, then overland across neighbouring Oman. There followed an arduous 26-mile trip by inflatable boat and jet ski into international waters.

But it was all to no avail. Princess Latifa, according to her own account, was drugged and seized at gunpoint from a yacht 30 miles off the coast of India by Indian and UAE special forces.

The timeline is important because it demonstrates the gullibility and naivety of Robinson, who should have known better. She is, after all, an accomplished human rights barrister and a former senator who was appointed as a professor of law at Trinity while still in her twenties.

She holds 24 honorary doctorates and has a postgraduate qualification from Harvard, is a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, and the chair of the Elders, a group of global leaders.

Princess Latifa recorded a 40-minute video before her escape attempt which was posted on YouTube in March 2018, shortly after her capture. In the clip, she said: “If you are watching this video, it’s not such a good thing, either I’m dead or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation.”

The video received almost five million views and provoked international concern about Latifa’s welfare. The campaign to free her gained momentum as a result, and Tiina Jauhiainen, the close friend who helped her escape Dubai, gave interviews to media outlets around the world.

In July 2018, the 60 Minutes Australia programme interviewed four individuals who were close associates of Latifa and who corroborated her version of events.

Things escalated in December 2018, nine months after Latifa was last seen in public. The BBC aired a documentary about her ordeal, reminding the world that Latifa’s older sister was also captured in England following her escape from Dubai in 2000.

Just days after the BBC documentary, Robinson went to Dubai to have lunch with Latifa at the invitation of Princess Haya, Robinson’s longstanding friend.

Haya is Latifa’s stepmother and the youngest of Sheikh Mohammed’s six wives. It was later confirmed by Robinson’s representative that Haya had paid for Robinson’s air fare to Dubai. Robinson subsequently sent a report of the lunch to Michelle Bachelet, her successor at the UN.

The Dubai government began a PR offensive to allay concerns about Latifa. Days after the lunch, photos of Latifa and Robinson were released. In a statement, the emirate referred to “false allegations” and referenced Robinson’s satisfaction that Latifa was receiving “the care and support she requires”.

Three days later, Robinson was interviewed by BBC radio, and echoed the sentiments of the Dubai government. “This is a family matter now, and she is in the care, and loving care, of her family,” she said.

She went on to describe Latifa as “a troubled young woman who has a serious medical situation, she’s receiving psychiatric care, and they don’t want her to endure any more publicity”. Robinson told the BBC that she had presented Latifa with a copy of her new book on climate change.

Fifteen months later, the British High Court published a “fact-finding judgment” as part of divorce proceedings between Princess Haya and Sheikh Mohammed.

The March 2020 judgment said the billionaire ruler of Dubai ordered the abduction of two of his daughters and stated that, “on the balance of probability, that Latifa’s account of her motives for wishing to leave Dubai represents the truth”.

“She was plainly desperate to extricate herself from her family and prepared to undertake a dangerous mission in order to do so,” it said.

Despite effectively giving Dubai political cover with the UN, Latifa’s YouTube testimony, the worldwide media campaign by credible individuals and the British High Court finding, it was not until this month – more than two years after she met Latifa for lunch – that Robinson broke her silence in the BBC Panorama interview.

It made for uncomfortable viewing. Robinson said she was “horribly tricked”, and told how Haya explained how “Latifa had quite a serious bipolar problem in a way that was very convincing”.

“We don’t want Latifa to go through any further trauma,” she said.

When asked if she regretted not asking Latifa more directly about her YouTube video and about her situation in general, Robinson’s response was: “I thought about it and I suppose I’m not very familiar with people who are bipolar.

“I didn’t know how to address somebody who was bipolar about their trauma . . . I decided to give a pass on that . . . I didn’t actually want to talk to her and increase the trauma over a nice lunch.”

This was an incredible admission for Robinson to make, and one which ignored the “principles for the protection of persons with mental illness” which form part of a core set of principles that govern the mandate of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Robinson did not meet Latifa in private. She did not speak to her doctors. On that basis, the former barrister made a report to the UN and told the BBC in 2018 that the princess was “a troubled young woman who has a serious medical situation”.

What does Latifa have to say about her meeting with the former Irish president?

“Haya introduced Mary,” she said in the secret phone recordings aired by Panorama. “She never said that she was a former UN Head of Human Rights, never. If I knew that, of course, like, I would have said everything but no, she never told me that.

“The topics that we discussed during that lunch were sports, veganism, the environment. Nothing outside from that. And Mary kept talking about her book as well.”

Robinson’s reputation has been severely damaged by this controversy. She swallowed the Dubai narrative about Latifa’s mental health hook, line and sinker – and did so in the full knowledge that the UAE is a country where political parties are banned and where all executive, legislative and judicial authority ultimately rests with the seven hereditary rulers.

Her call for an international investigation into Latifa’s detention comes more than two years after her meeting with the princess. Back then, she had the power to actually do something.

Last week, the UN Commission on Human Rights said it would ask for proof that Latifa is alive.