Tracy Robinson Profile
Tracy Robinson (Jamaica & Balliol 1992) is a lawyer and senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Mona, where she teaches gender and law, constitutional law and Commonwealth Caribbean human rights, among other subjects. She was the Chair of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights from 2014-2015, and currently serves as its Rapporteur for the rights of women and rights of LGBTI persons until the end of her term in December 2015. Tracy has served as a consultant to international agencies such as the United Nations Fund for Women (now UN Women) and UNICEF, and she has advised Caribbean governments on topics related to gender and children’s rights legislation. She holds a Master of Laws from Yale University, a Bachelor of Civil Law from the University of Oxford, and a Bachelor of Law from the University of the West Indies.
Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student?
Tracy Robinson: I have to confess that Oxford for me was awkward—I don’t think I ever became fully at ease as a student citizen in Oxford. Even though I highly valued my time there and some of my most important friendships were formed in Oxford, I think the uneasiness comes from its unspoken remnants of empire. For instance, I spent time in the Codrington Library and I was always struck by its magnificence but also the significance of this library having been built by a former slave owner in the Caribbean. I did feel like certain places, such as small post-colonies in the Caribbean, were quite invisible in Oxford.
Rhodes Project: What was your experience like as Chair of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights?
Tracy Robinson: The experience confirmed for me the extent to which spaces of law and legal engagement are really also spaces of politics. The very important and compelling work done by the Commission in promoting and protecting human rights in the American hemisphere is always being negotiated in a political setting. This meant that I had to learn how to listen carefully to the many constituencies that the Commission serves: the victims of human rights violations, the states in the Organization of American States, civil society, your peers on the Commission, the staff and the specialists at the Commission. All of these views and imperatives had to be processed at the same time to engage in both judicious and independent decision making. So the work of the Commission was always a fine balance between maintaining the autonomy of the body to ensure that its work could be conducted with integrity and at the same time engaging with states who founded the Commission and others who are deeply interested in it addressing specific issues. It was a juggling act and it involved keen political skills as much as intellectual ones.
Rhodes Project: In your work as a lawyer, academic, advisor to Caribbean governments and consultant to the United Nations, gender issues have been an area of focus. What gender issues are you turning your attention to now?
Tracy Robinson: A lot of my early work as a legal feminist focused on how to ensure that our societies and our states recognize women as full, autonomous citizens and emphasize the right to be free from violence. Over the past few years, particularly by serving on the Inter American Commission and spending considerable time in Latin America, I have been overwhelmed by the slow pace of recognition of women’s sexual and reproductive rights. And not just the slow pace of recognition of those rights, but the hostility and sometimes violence towards women human rights defenders who are working on those issues. So, in my last few years on the Commission, I have focused on ensuring that there is stronger protection for this aspect of women’s humanity—and I suspect I will continue to work on this after my term at the Commission.
Rhodes Project: Reflecting back on your diverse professional experiences, what have been the most personally significant projects you have worked on?
Tracy Robinson: I think the significant projects in all cases have been collaborative ones. They have been projects with like-minded colleagues on specific issues. I think in particular of the work with a group of two other legal feminists in the Caribbean on law reform and policy reform in the eastern Caribbean states. Collectively we had the idea that lack of access to child support was an important impediment to women’s equality in the Caribbean. This project which engaged in both research and encouraging policy reform in the Caribbean tackled the question of women’s poverty and women’s inequality through the frame of child support. It was an incredibly significant project, both in terms of the impact and the collaborative engagement among the three of us.
A few years later, a small group of public law teachers at the University of the West Indies got together and decided that we could make an important impact by engaging in public interest litigation on human rights issues and social justice issues that had deep significance for our region, but that few people in the Caribbean, including lawyers at that time, were interested in advancing. So, a group of us worked together on litigating LGBTI issues.
A more recent initiative, during my tenure at the Inter American Commission, has been the establishment of a Rapporteurship on the rights of LGBTI persons at the Commission. Acting as its first Rapporteur and participating in the foundational moments of this new thematic area at the Commission have been extremely valuable to me.
Rhodes Project: Who have been formative role models or mentors for you, personally and professionally? What memorable advice have they given you?
Tracy Robinson: Even though the language of role models and mentors is not the most comfortable for me, or necessarily always appropriate for me, I would say that I remember distinctly a moment in my mid-20s when I was setting up a human rights organization at the law school with my colleagues. In a set of conversations with my mother, who is now deceased, she heard my hesitation and my reluctance. She very plainly said to me, “It’s not enough to have vision, you must be willing to lead.” In the 20 years since then, I have always paid close attention to the imperative of being willing to lead—being willing to follow as well, but especially being willing to lead at decisive moments where you see the opportunity for change.
More generally, in these past 20 years, more so than mentors and role models, I’ve been enormously enabled and shaped by work with peers. The guidance they provide and the way in which they have worked with me on collaborative projects have been incredibly instructive. Invariably, these are persons who become some of my closest friends. It is the work with peers—some younger, some older, some more experienced, some less experienced—that provides the space for spirited, honest and generous relationships on important issues. That has been both formative and enabling for me.
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