A political tour de force and former Irish president, Mary Robinson is gathering steam in her latest mission – climate justice.

Mary Robinson at a Women's Rights Committee meeting in 2011. Photo by Pietro Naj-Oleari/European Union

Statuesque and commanding, Mary Robinson, reportedly, doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But while fools should steer clear, some of the world’s most vulnerable people have found a champion in her unwavering dedication to human rights.

Mary Robinson is a woman of firsts. First female president of Ireland. First head of state to visit Somalia in 1992 and the first to visit Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. At 25 years old, she was Trinity College’s youngest law professor and senator, where her first bill was intent on changing the law prohibiting the import, sale and distribution of contraception in Ireland. The bill failed but it was quite the political debut.

Mary Robinson speaks to local women at a healthcare centre in Dollow, Somalia. Photo by Oxfam International

This was the Ireland in the late 1960s, a country still fully in the grip of the Catholic Church. Her campaigns to allow women to sit on juries and for the right to remain in employment in the civil service after marriage were met with similar opposition from fellow politicians.

The first Irish head of state to make official visits to Britain, she was a regular visitor to Northern Ireland. A handshake with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams caused controversy in 1993 but some claim it eased the path to the cease-fire the following year.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), Mary expanded the role to cover issues of important to women, such as food security, clean water and access to healthcare. Her insistence on seeing climate change as part of the bigger picture has lead her since leaving office to found the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, which fights for global justice for the marginalized who are suffering from the effects of climate change.

“I don’t at all subscribe to the notion that you weaken human rights by making it relevant to globalisation and corporate responsibility,” she told The Guardian. “Human rights is about holding those with power to account for abuse of power.”

The point is to tackle the root of the problem, ie climate change, rather than patching up the consequences of it: Famine, drought and conflict over food, land and water. Mary’s formidable political clout allows her to fight the battle her way – through engagement at the highest level, promoting policy change which will empower the most vulnerable.

Mary Robinson on Live International Radio Broadcast with UNHCR. Photo by UN/Evan Schneider

Growing up in Ballina, Co Mayo, she attributes her sense of right and wrong to a benevolent grandfather and retired lawyer who had a soft spot for the underdog. “My grandfather was of the age and disposition where he had no idea how to talk to a child. So he talked to me as if I was an adult, and I loved it. I felt so important.”

In recognition of her work since then, she was invited to join The Elders, a group founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007 of twelve global leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to campaign for peace and human rights.

As a seasoned barrister and legislator – she has brought a number of landmark cases before the European Court of Human Rights – she has used her legal, political and diplomatic expertise to powerful effect and has sought to remain outside the wrangling and finger pointing of Ireland’s political soap-opera. After many years in Geneva and New York, she returned to Ireland in 2010, to a country ravaged by recession and unemployment, in sharp contrast to the one she presided over in the 1990s.

But this is far from retirement. The struggle for climate justice is still in its infancy. Thankfully, at 67, she shows no signs of slowing down.