The appointment, announced yesterday by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, means that she will almost certainly have to relinquish the Irish presidency a few months before the official end of her term in December.
The position, which is very close to the top of the UN hierarchy, will establish Mrs Robinson as the world's most important human rights watchdog, with the power to expose abuses wherever they may arise in the world, and potentially to embarrass governments that may not want such critical attention.
Even though early elections will have to be called in Ireland, the choice is likely be seen as a signal compliment both to her and to the Republic.
"This is likely to be the most important appointment that I make during the whole of my term as Secretary General," Mr Annan said yesterday, adding that he expected to meet with Mrs Robinson next month to discuss when she would take up the new job.
He has asked her to start at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva before the beginning of September. Asked if that would mean her giving up the presidency early, Mr Annan replied: "It may come to that".
The human rights portfolio would more usually have gone to a candidate from a Third World country.
In being selected, Mrs Robinson beat stiff competition, notably from the Costa Rican ambassador to Washington, Sonia Picardo, who had benefited from strong support from Latin American countries in particular.
Mrs Robinson has for several years publicly demonstrated her interests in human rights, by, for instance, focusing on the history of Ireland's potato famine a century ago, as well as acting as the main contributor to a Council of Europe conference on human rights in 1993 that was part of the preparation for the subsequent World Conference on Human Rights.
Mrs Robinson was also the first head of state to visit Rwanda after the genocide that occured there two years ago.Reuse content