Profile with Jennifer Robinson
Jennifer Robinson (Australia-at-Large & Balliol 2006) is Director of Legal Advocacy for the Bertha Foundation, an organisation which supports emerging public interest lawyers around the world. She is also an Adjunct Professor in Law at the University of Sydney Law School. She is an expert in media and free speech law, having worked with clients such as Julian Assange, Richard Dawkins and the New York Times. She is also active in the West Papuan independence movement: she represents the leader in exile and is the co-founder of International Lawyers for West Papua. She graduated from the Australian National University with a double degree in Law and Asian Studies, where she was University Medallist in Law and Distinguished Scholar in Asian Studies. As a Rhodes Scholar, she completed a Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) and an MPhil in Public International Law. Jen was included on our recent list of 13 Famous Rhodes Women.
Rhodes Project: Tell me about a favorite childhood memory.
Jennifer Robinson: Getting up early in the morning with my Dad to watch him train racehorses at sunrise on our local beach – Seven Mile Beach. It is still one of my favorite things to do when I go home to Australia: not only does it evoke happy childhood memories, but the view is spectacular and there is something cathartic about the sound of the ocean set against the rhythmic sound of horses galloping on hard sand. Much of my life at home revolved around that beach.
Rhodes Project: What was the last book your read for pleasure?
Jennifer Robinson: The Mountain by Druscilla Modjeska. I love fictional stories that are set in accurate historical and political contexts. This novel is set at the conclusion of the Australian administration of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and, through a series of relationships between Papuans and ex-pats from Australia and Britain, examines various themes in post-colonial change: pressures around de-colonization, corporate exploitation of indigenous communities and the environment.
We read and talk a lot about American or British imperialism, but this book looks at the Australian variety. While I read it for pleasure, it was also thought-provoking for me in thinking about the different histories of PNG and West Papua, the contested territory neighboring PNG, which is equally entitled to self-determination -- but around the same time PNG was handed independence by Australia, Indonesia took West Papua’s away. Through my work advising West Papuan activists seeking self-determination, the independence movement, I’ve read a lot about their history so it was interesting to read and think about PNG at that time.
Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about your time at Oxford?
Jennifer Robinson: I guess it was a surprise that the most interesting learning I did was actually not in lectures or through my research but from the incredible intellectual community created by my peers. Whether it was in the Balliol MCR Bar, a college dinner or an event at Rhodes House, discussing friends’ theses on astrophysics or neuroscience or political philosophy – and debating issues of the day – were the most intellectually engaging, and fun, parts of my time at Oxford. Of course, reading law at Oxford has undoubtedly improved my legal knowledge and analytical ability, but I’m intellectually curious and love to learn about new things. The intellectual community of my peers fed that curiosity in ways I hadn’t known before and haven’t known since. I miss it.
Rhodes Project: What inspired you to become a lawyer?
Jennifer Robinson: On a fundamental level I was motivated by sense of injustice and wanting to fix it – and that remains true today. When I started university I wanted to become a diplomat: I had an elevated perception of Australian foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific and the government’s willingness to positively influence human rights discourse in the region, and I wanted to play a role in fostering better Indonesian-Australian understanding and relations. But after my time in West Papua and my interactions with Australian and US diplomats on human rights issues, I swore I’d never become a diplomat. Ironically, I’ve gone on to advise Wikileaks, the organisation that released US diplomatic cables revealing corruption, abuse and the nature of diplomacy. I have also represented the West Papuan independence movement, which is one of the most prickly and sensitive issues in Indonesia-Australia relations.
Movement lawyers have shown how the law can be used as a tool to achieve social justice, whether we talk about the lawyers working with the anti-apartheid struggle, the civil rights movement or today’s information movement. Those lawyers definitely inspired me to want to be a lawyer, and inspired my decision to help to create a program that inspires more young lawyers to want to do this work.
Rhodes Project: What’s an average day at work like?
Jennifer Robinson: There is no such thing for me and I love that about my work! It has been a conscious choice to cultivate my career in that way. In London, I could spend my morning drafting grant agreements or on the phone with our Bertha Justice Initiative partners in South Africa, Mexico, India, Pakistan or Colombia hearing about and strategizing about the human rights cases we support, and my afternoon at an event in Parliament or meeting Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy with Baltasar Garzon and Michael Ratner. In the evening I could be speaking at a documentary film event that the Bertha Foundation has supported or meeting with filmmakers to help develop social justice advocacy campaigns to achieve impact with their films. I also enjoy writing and engaging academically with the law, so I might be preparing a lecture or a chapter for a book.
My work requires me to travel constantly to meet with partners and potential future partners: so you might find me with the lawyers we support and mentor at a protest in Delhi after observing Supreme Court hearings or attending a Commission of Inquiry in a Cape Town township. I thrive on the variety – and adventure – my current role allows.
Rhodes Project: What’s the most challenging part of your job now?
Jennifer Robinson: The Bertha Justice Initiative, the global program to support emerging public interest lawyers around the world that I have developed for the Bertha Foundation, is still very new. It has been challenging to develop the program: it entails working across a huge variety of countries, jurisdictions, legal cultures and traditions and political contexts, from the Philippines to Palestine to Peru. I am very proud of what we have achieved – with more than 70 young lawyers being trained in 14 different countries – but there is much to do. It is challenging to develop a program that serves and supports lawyers working in very different contexts and facing very different challenges, but it’s exciting and rewarding.
It is also challenging to work on major international cases where, irrespective of the strength of our legal position, their just resolution requires political action that is, thus far, not forthcoming. This is the case in respect of my work for Assange and WikiLeaks, but it is also true of my work for West Papua: international law dictates that West Papuans, like the East Timorese, are entitled to self-determination and a vote in accordance with international practice, but without international political action – this will not happen. Cases like these demonstrate the important, but ultimately limited role the law and, certainly, litigation plays. Broader strategies are required.
Rhodes Project: What role has mentorship played in your life?
Jennifer Robinson: Mentorship has been absolutely essential. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the key mentors I have had the benefit of working with over the past decade or so. I could name many but to name just a few: John Rumbiak, a West Papuan human rights defender who was forced into exile after the death threats he received when I was working with him, taught me a lot about strategic advocacy under extreme government pressure and in conflict situations.
I looked up to Geoffrey Robertson QC, a fellow Australian and Rhodes scholar, when I was at university and have been very fortunate to work with him for many years, which gave me my start in this work in London. I’ve worked with Geoffrey advising governments and NGOs on media and international law issues, such as crimes against humanity in Iraq and Iran, accountability for the Catholic Church and Pope for child sex abuse, represented major media organisations like the New York Times and WikiLeaks, and acted in numerous free speech cases including the first application heard before the UK Supreme Court. More recently, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of working with Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in the US, both on the Assange and WikiLeaks work and in relation to developing the Bertha Justice Initiative. Michael has been at the forefront of human rights advocacy and litigation in the US for decades, pioneering the creative use of the law for the benefit of controversial, important causes. It has been a privilege to work with and be mentored by these lawyers – each of them leaders in this field – who I had long looked up to.
The importance of these and other relationships in my own professional development was a key driver behind the creation of the Bertha Justice Initiative program to create opportunities for emerging public interest lawyers to work with and be mentored by the most exciting public interest lawyers around the world. The value of mentorship cannot be underestimated: especially in a field like this where you are constantly pushing the boundaries and challenging the status quo, sometimes in volatile environments.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman starting out in your field?
Jennifer Robinson: Be wary of advice! Do what you enjoy and cultivate your own path.
Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?
Jennifer Robinson: Friends, food, wine – and exercise. I’m most relaxed when I’m on a beach but when in London I will turn off my phone and head over to Regents Park with a coffee to catch up on the London and New York Review of Books and read the newspapers in peace.
Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?
Jennifer Robinson: Becoming an aunt for the first time. My sister is due to have a baby soon and I am beyond excited about it.
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