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Growing up in Australia’s breezy South Coast, Jennifer had humble beginnings in Bomaderry, a town in the Shoalhaven council district area of New South Wales. Who would have thought at the time that this ANU alumna of Indonesian—and previously a student at the unassuming Bomaderry High public school—would ultimately rise to the international stage as a global icon in the realm of human rights law?
Meet Jennifer Robinson—an ambassador of public schooling for Oxford University, where she went on to study as a Rhodes Scholar, attending Balliol College and graduating with a Bachelor of Civil Law with Distinction and a Master of Philosophy in International Public Law. A human rights lawyer who has gained prominence as a result of the globally publicised Julian Assange and WikiLeaks case, Jennifer is a former student of the ANU where she took up a double degree in Asian Studies and Law. She left with the university medal in law and a Distinguished Scholar in Asian Studies.
Achieving at the ANU
During her school days, a trip to Indonesia sparked her interest in Indonesia and Asian studies and all things Indonesian. She started following events in East Timor, where her interest in, and passion for, human rights was sparked. This led her to the Asian Studies Law degree at ANU, because she wanted to spend a year living in Indonesia as part of the degree, and it was her work in West Papua that convinced her about the impact one can have as a lawyer.
Jennifer was attracted to ANU because of the strength of the Asian studies program here, and because it would allow her to do Advanced Indonesian Studies and live in country. According to Jennifer, she wouldn’t be where she is without it. She started learning Indonesian because she had a wonderful teacher at high school, and it was an amazing opportunity to be able to travel with this teacher on a school trip to Indonesia. Jennifer loved the experience of being able to speak to Indonesians in their own language, and she wanted to master it. According to the high-profile lawyer, “It bothers me that, as English speakers, we expect others to converse in our language. But beyond that it was my Indonesian studies that took me to Indonesia and West Papua, where I found my passion for human rights, and I couldn’t have done that work without the skills that I gained by studying Indonesian. And I couldn’t do the work that I do now on the West Papuan leadership without my language skills, my cultural and academic understanding of Indonesia from my time at ANU, and my experience of living in Indonesia (sadly, because of Indonesian occupation and colonisation of West Papua)."
The combination of Asian studies and a law degree, her language skills and her first-hand experience in Indonesia helped Jennifer find her niche. The great value in doing a double degree is that it allows an individual to explore one’s interests. It certainly enabled Jennifer to find her calling, which helped her on her journey to becoming a human rights lawyer. It also opened up a whole raft of opportunities along the way, and continues to do so today, according to the lawyer. She is thankful for her ANU experience, stating that “ANU was then, and still is, the best university in Australia for Asian studies. Other than the obvious academic attraction, coming from Berry to Canberra seemed like an easier jump than going to cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Canberra was also the one university where I could afford to live on campus in college and I really wanted to have that experience, which was a fun and important part of the university experience. I was in Burton and Garron Hall for three years, and I am really grateful for my time there.”
Reminiscing about her Indonesian studies, Jennifer recalls a few favourite expressions and words. When discussing language, the history and cultural origins of idioms and the beauty of learning language, she often uses as an example: the Indonesian phrase for having the flu—masuk angin, which literally means ‘the wind has entered you’, a much prettier way of describing it than in English! Jennifer also loves the use of kakak and adik, as words that are used both for older or younger brothers and sisters, but for people you are close to—we don’t do that in English—and reflects a broader concept of family and community.
From her time in West Papua, Jennifer’s favourite word is actually not an Indonesian word, but a word from Papua New Guinea (PNG), which is used across Melanesia: wantok. It is used to describe friends, community members and colleagues working towards a common cause— and across the region—from West Papua to PNG to Vanuatu. It’s something Jennifer associates with Melanesian solidarity. Some of Jennifer’s best anecdotes from West Papua are in her TED talk, which is helpful for anyone wanting to learn more about West Papua.
Raising the bar
From a small Aussie town in New South Wales to ANU and then to Oxford, Jennifer has taken significant strides in life on many levels. Today, she’s a lawyer and barrister with Doughty Street Chambers in London, best known as a long-standing member of the legal team defending Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. She is also the Director of Legal Advocacy for the Bertha Foundation, where she established the Bertha Justice Initiative that supports 120 young lawyers in 16 countries to practise ‘movement lawyering’. This involved partnering with the most radical human rights litigating organisations all around the world and creating a two-year fellowship program to support young or emerging lawyers to go into public interest legal work and become human rights lawyers. The idea was to pioneer the creation of paid, entry-level opportunities for young lawyers, which did not exist previously.
Jennifer has been described by some as “an eloquent activist for the world’s downtrodden and disenfranchised” and a personality “who may well be the new face of human rights law.” And to think it all started with a little bit of in-country experience in Indonesia—which speaks volumes about the role that ANU, Asian Studies and Indonesian language learning has played in her life.
Here’s an alumna who has truly kept the ANU flag flying high.