Why I Do What I Do: International Free Speech and Human Rights Lawyer Jennifer Robinson

This week we kick off our brand new feature “Why I Do What I do” where we talk to an amazing array of lawyers who explain why they have taken the path less travelled in their legal careers. We hope you find reading these features to be as inspiring to you as they are to us. This week we feature Jennifer Robinson. (Updated with a video highlighting the first ever Bertha Justice Initiative Global Convening in Cape Town, South Africa, in March 2014)

Jennifer Robinson
Jennifer Robinson

Global justice requires global leadership. This month, Progressive Lawyer is proud to feature the work of Jennifer Robinson, Director of Legal Advocacy for the Bertha Justice “Be Just” Initiative for the Bertha Foundation.

An Australian native and a Rhodes Scholar, Jen is an internationally known human rights and free speech lawyer whose clients have included the New York Times, CNN, Human Rights Watch and Global Witness. Since 2010, Jen has been a member of the legal team advocating for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Additionally, Jen is a contributing author to such seminal media law texts Law on Contempt (2010), Information Rights: Law and Practice (2014) and, later this year, Robertson and Nichol on Media Law. She also writes for publications such as Al Jazeera English, Sydney Morning Herald and Vogue.

Jen joined the Bertha Foundation in 2011 and established the Be Just Initiative to support the next generation of human rights lawyers around the world. The Be Just Initiative now supports more than 100 lawyers in 15 different countries. She also provides strategic advice to activists and social justice filmmakers supported by the Foundation.

In 2013, Jen gave a TED talk in Sydney entitled Courage is Contagious. She spoke of a man whose fight for his country’s independence resulted in his illegal imprisonment and torture, Benny Wenda of West Papua, and how his circumstances inspired her to become an international human rights lawyer.

Benny was accused by the Indonesian police of leading an independence rally that turned violent in 2002. At the time, Jen was a student and volunteer at the Institute for Advocacy and Study of Human Rights (Elsham), a human rights organisation in West Papua, Indonesia. As a foreigner, Jen was not allowed to visit Benny in prison but she was able to communicate with him, exchanging notes. She became part of his legal defence team and attended his trial. Before judgment in his trial, Jen had to return to Australia following the bombings in Bali. And while she feared she would not see him again as a free man, Benny managed to escape from custody. He was eventually spirited to the UK, where he was reunited with his wife and daughter – and they now have six children. Jen moved to the UK to help Benny obtain asylum and reunite with his family there, and wrote a statement in support of his political asylum detailing what she witnessed in his case. He was granted political asylum in 2003.

Meeting Benny changed her life, Jen says, and inspired in her a conviction that “the impossible is possible, and that standing idly by in the face of injustice is unthinkable.”

“Individuals can change the world, but they cannot do it alone,” Jen said. “Once we realize we can help create change, how can we not? What are we waiting for? There is no passion to be found in settling for a life that is less than the one that you are capable of living.”

Progressive Lawyer: As a free speech lawyer, what do you make of the current global debate surrounding free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders? Do you believe free speech is an absolute right or that it should be constrained in some way?

Jennifer Robinson: The Charlie Hebdo murders were a tragedy – and abhorrent crimes. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were offensive and often bigoted (disproportionately about the Islamic faith and community) but they absolutely had the right to publish them and I was pleased to see such a strong public response in support of this free speech right. However, many were eager to rally around free speech under the banner of ‘Je Suis Charlie’ – including dictators who violently suppress free speech in their own countries and supposedly democratic leaders who suppress it in subtler ways using draconian anti-terrorism legislation. If only they were so principled in their support for free speech at home. Free speech must mean free speech for all: whatever your views and whatever your religion.

Elements of the Je Suis Charlie campaign that followed were problematic: with solidarity being expressed for Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech by identifying not just with the victims – but with the views they expressed. For many, this meant posting or publishing cartoons which were highly offensive to Islam – including Islamophobic material. Principled support for free speech requires defense of the right to express views that society considers offensive and repellant – it does not require that we agree with or embrace those views. I can defend the right to express repellent ideas while being able to condemn the idea itself: for example, I’ve written in support of the right to free speech for a right-wing columnist in Australia whose views I find repugnant (who, rather ironically, has accused me of “intellectual cowardice” and of being a danger as great as “jihadist terrorists”). For me: Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie – but they have every right to publish those cartoons and should never experience violence or face threats for doing so. Generally speaking, I am sceptical of any government restrictions on speech content – particularly laws preventing “offense” – except where that speech directly incites violence.

PL: Is Bertha working with any activist organizations to channel leadership, or offer training on non-violent resistance?

JR: Bertha Foundation’s core activist work is focused not only on strengthening first and second-tier leadership within activist organizations and social movements, but also on helping to build the scaffolding that allows these movements to connect on strategy and skills-building. We believe that the movements and organizations themselves are best positioned to assess their skills needs so any training program developed is done with those organizations taking the lead. The activist organizations with whom we work are also aware that it is incredibly important to ground training and leadership development work in a deep understanding of political economy and historical context. Further, there is an understanding that real skills are often not learned in a training room, so we try to ensure that we provide opportunities for collaboration amongst different disciplines, movements and issues. Giving young people the chance to work in real-world situations with solid mentorship can be very powerful.

From a legal advocacy perspective, the Bertha Foundation theory of change is based on a movement lawyering model: lawyers, activists and storytellers need to work together to create positive social change. Through the Bertha Justice “Be Just” Initiative, we support emerging lawyers to work with and learn from the most exciting public interest lawyers around the world on cutting edge human rights work. Aside from that practical training, we aim to provide Be Just fellows training that lawyers might not normally receive, such as leadership, media advocacy and filmmaking – skills we know to be helpful for human rights advocates. We also create opportunities for them to connect with the international and comparative aspects of their work, including educational exchanges in different countries on specific legal issues. The Bertha Foundation is also developing an activist training program to support social movements, a program which will also serve the lawyers in our network.

PL: How do you pick your partner organizations? What do you offer to support the initiatives Bertha is engaged in?

JR: We choose partner organizations which use the law as a tool to achieve social justice. As well as litigating human rights cases, our partner organizations also engage in public advocacy, support activist movements and have the capacity to train and supervise emerging lawyers. Once part of the Be Just network, we provide incentive funding to the organization to employ emerging lawyers for a two-year fellowship: we cover their salary, as well as supervision, training and professional admission costs. The idea is to create an alternative career path to the more well-established corporate law route out of university. In addition to this, we provide our partner organizations additional funding opportunities to support their work – whether that be for video advocacy projects or for hosting educational exchanges. Crucially – and in my view the most exciting part – we offer the opportunity to connect with a vibrant and high-quality network of new and experienced lawyers around the world, to learn from and with each other, and to work collaboratively with storytellers and activists promoting social change.

-We Had Fun- from Bertha Foundation on Vimeo.

PL: How do you utilize the law to further your organizational goals?

JR: Movement lawyers have shown how the law can be used as a tool to achieve social justice, whether we are talking 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. We actively seek to support projects that use the law as a tool to create positive social change. Much of the legal work we support is responsive to and serves grassroots social movements – whether we talk about our support in Ferguson for the Black Lives Matter movement or South Africa’s Equal Education movement, which has been described as the most important social movement in post-apartheid South Africa. In line with our theory of change, we work to promote collaboration between activists, storytellers and lawyers. I also help filmmakers we support identify and articulate their legal advocacy goals.

PL: What kinds of lawyers lead Bertha initiatives? There seem to be a lot of females in leadership roles. Is that unique to this kind of lawyering, i.e. compassionate advocacy? Does that present its own challenges in certain cultures or countries?

JR: The lawyers (both men and women) our fellows are learning from are, in my view, among the most exciting in 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. For example, Alejandra Ancheita runs our partner organization ProDESC in Mexico. Alejandra is an incredibly brave lawyer – taking on cases for indigenous communities against multinational corporations and suffering death threats as a result. In 2014, she was awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (see here). In Gaza, Raji Sourani runs the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), defending human rights and seeking accountability for abuse. Raji is the most prominent human rights lawyer in Gaza and has received numerous awards, including the Right Livelihood Award in 2013 (see here). Another Right Livelihood Award winner, Jacqueline Moudeina, is leading the quest for justice for victims of Hissène Habré in Chad and supervises fellows in Chad and Senegal who are assisting her to represent the victims in Habré’s trial which is due to take place in Senegal this year (see here). It is a privilege for me to be able to work with these and other remarkable lawyers in our network.

It says a lot about the legal profession for it to seem like there are a lot of women in leadership roles in the Bertha network, when only a third of the organizations we support are led by women. Of course, this is better than female representation in leadership of law firms in the US, where only 20% of partners are women (even less in managing partner roles) – despite women making up more than half of newly qualified lawyers – and that number is even lower in places like Australia, South Africa, India and Pakistan. But the reality is that, even in the human rights sector, men lead the great majority of organizations – and this needs to change. Well over half of our Be Just fellows are women – so the number of women in leadership in our network does not yet reflect the number of women entering the profession. In the future we hope to see more of our partner organizations led by women! We have already identified this as an issue – and are actively working to find ways to better support women lawyers in our network so that, over time, we see more transitioning into leadership roles. I’d encourage people to read about how recent work seeking to empower women human rights lawyers around the world (see here).

I don’t think the higher representation of women in the human rights sector has anything to do with so-called “compassionate advocacy” or any gendered notion of how men and women engage with the law or choose to practice their profession. In many ways, this work is more difficult than working in the corporate sector: the lawyers we support take on very powerful state and corporate interests and – in some parts of the world – face threats of violence for doing so. I think the human rights sector and the groups we support are, by their nature, more sensitized to gender issues and the need for equality, which may go some way towards explaining the slightly higher representation of women in leadership. Frankly, more empirical research needs to be done on this issue globally. But we have learned through our work that many women lawyers still suffer grave discrimination in the profession – and, as women human rights defenders, even face gender-specific threats like the threat of sexual violence. I’m really proud that, through the Be Just Initiative, we are facilitating opportunities for the women in our network to better support each other in facing these challenges.

PL: Bertha is involved in sponsoring a number of documentaries aligned with its mission. How do you see filmmaking and more broadly social media as a tool for change?

JR: Storytelling through film is a really powerful way of reaching people on social justice issues. It provides an entry to empathy and can be an effective way of building awareness and starting conversations about important issues with diverse audiences. Films can inform, educate and inspire action. Exposing people to a particular issue via a human face and a human story is often the most effective way of connecting with/ having an impact on / getting through to them. Some of the films we have supported have fundamentally changed the way people view issues and galvanized legal and political responses – such as Laura Poitras’ Academy Award winning film CitizenFour about Edward Snowden and government surveillance, which has profoundly changed society’s understanding of surveillance and spurred numerous legal actions and reform efforts. Similarly, Callum McRae’s film No Fire Zone about Sri Lankan war crimes was cited by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as having helped to compel the UN Human Rights Council investigation. British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted about No Fire Zone after watching it on television here and subsequently supported accountability efforts in Sri Lanka. The legal advocacy campaign we helped devise for Academy Award nominated film Virunga has lead to calls for corruption investigation of a British company for its actions associated with putting Virunga National Park at risk and to the Church of England considering divesting £3 million in investments in the company – precedents that will act as disincentives for this company and others operating abroad. Working on these and other social justice films – with remarkably committed filmmakers – to raise awareness and create change is definitely a highlight of my work at Bertha.

PL: How many internships / volunteer positions are available within the Bertha? How does one get involved with the initiative?

JR: We are currently supporting more than 100 entry level lawyer roles in 15 different countries: the US, Haiti, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Palestine, Germany, South Africa, Chad and Senegal. I am so excited about all of the young people we are supporting – and the incredible work they are doing.

We fund the positions but our partner organizations are responsible for the recruitment process because they are best placed to select the best candidates to serve their organizational needs and the needs of the communities they serve. All application processes are through the relevant Bertha partner (listed here on our website) – and this differs from organization to organization – so anyone interested in applying should contact the relevant organization they would like to work with. The focus of the Bertha fellowship is to support and build capacity locally, by training local lawyers who are best placed to serve the local community. So applicants need to apply to the relevant partner organization in their country of origin and/or residence.

PL: How is the Bertha Foundation funded?

JR: We are a privately funded, family Foundation – and I am proud to say that the Foundation is conscious of where its investments are made and is moving towards being funded exclusively by renewable energy. As staff, we are incredibly lucky to work with a living founder who is so visionary in how he funds and invests and is also deeply passionate and invested in this work at a personal level. It is very rare to work in an environment where you are allowed to take risks and think expansively. That is exactly what we are encouraged to do at Bertha. It is a privilege to make funding choices and we are all incredibly aware of the huge responsibility this is. We are very careful to make the very most of the funds we give and to get those funds to where they are most needed. In the law program, I’m proud that we are able to fund groups that are doing the most difficult work to fund: whether that be those seeking accountability for US drone strikes in Pakistan or for Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.

PL: How would a legal professional pursue a career with your organization? What advice would you give to a law student or legal professional who would be interested in this type public interest law?

JR: I definitely encourage law students with an interest in public interest law to contact our relevant partner organizations and apply to become a Bertha fellow. Sometimes I wish I could go back and be a Bertha fellow! That was my intention when I set out to create this program: to set up the program that I would have loved to be part of when I finished university. But our broader goal is to show law students everywhere what is possible with their degrees and to encourage them to find a way into this work. Beyond our program there are so many other exciting and interesting ways to pursue careers in public interest law: I encourage people to be brave, take risks and think outside of the box. Take our Bertha fellow Isha Khandelwal as an example! (profiled here). Identify someone (or an organization) who does what you want to do – and go and try to work with them. The path into this work isn’t always straightforward – but it is most definitely interesting and rewarding.

There are limited opportunities to work with me directly at the Bertha Justice Initiative – we do a lot but we do it with a very small staff. But I do host interns from time to time – so happy to hear from enthusiastic young people.

PL: How do you balance your work life with your private life?

JR: With great difficulty!

PL: Outside of your organization, what issues are you particularly passionate about?

JR: Having seen what I have seen in West Papua, I am passionate about justice for the people of West Papua who have for too long suffered under Indonesian oppression. For more than a decade I have supported the West Papuan community, as a founding member of International Lawyers for West Papua, providing support for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua and legal advocacy on ongoing human rights abuses by Indonesian security forces.

I also remain a member of the legal team for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks because of the injustice of Julian’s situation and the hypocritical and disproportionate state response to his case and to WikiLeaks’ work. Julian, through his work leading WikiLeaks, has changed the way the world thinks about information – it started what people now describe as an information movement – and people now talk about a right to information. Amnesty International credits WikiLeaks as having helped to spark democratic revolution and the materials WikiLeaks has published have been cited in human rights cases around the world. History will not reflect well on how he has been treated, both by governments and by certain sectors of the media. Whatever your political views, a principled commitment to free speech requires defense of WikiLeaks and a defense of Julian, as its founder and editor.

PL: What do you think the role of law and lawyers should be in society?

JR: I think that lawyers ought to go beyond upholding the rule of law, which is effectively protecting the status quo, to consider it a duty to challenge unjust laws. Sadly, there is too often a big difference between what is lawful and what is just.

PL: Thank you so much for your time Jen. For further information on the Bertha Foundation’s Be Just Initiative please click here.

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