Why you should care
Whether or not you side with Assange, it’s hard to find fault with his lawyer.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
Q: What do an Australian priest who has spoken out against child sexual abuse, a West Papuan activist who escaped from prison, and WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange have in common?
A: That would be Jennifer Robinson, a 32-year-old Australian attorney who may well be the new face of human-rights law. The telegenic former Rhodes scholar has advocated on behalf of all of them in one way or another, and though you may not have heard of the priest or activist, Robinson sees commonalities: They’re dissidents, whistle-blowers and activists who’ve suffered for challenging power. Understanding that is a key to understanding why and how Robinson does what she does.
“All three of them, in their own ways, took on powerful interests to stand up for what is right,” says Robinson, now based in London, “and I am definitely compelled to help people to do that.”
Many are the photos and television interviews that show Robinson speaking on some aspect of the WikiLeaks case or at Assange’s side, toting a briefcase or sheaf of documents. Robinson is probably the organization’s longest-serving lawyer and has helped work on nearly every thread in its complex legal tangle, from financial blockades to a Swedish attempt to extradite Assange. These days, with Assange going on 18 months in an austere chamber in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, Robinson worries about his well-being and legal future. A sealed indictment of Assange likely lurks in some United States courtroom, and though Assange has been offered asylum in Ecuador, the British government probably wouldn’t let him out of the county. Things are “quite unfortunately at an impasse,” says Robinson.
Robinson has become a sort of consigliere to Assange. She visits him in the embassy every week or two to discuss legal issues and strategy and also, inevitably, to lend moral support and friendship. She was one of a small number of guests at his embassy birthday party, and says, “Julian’s one of my favorite people to debate with, actually. He’s incredibly smart and lots of fun to engage in debates with — cracking debates.”
Whether you think WikiLeaks performs a sacrosanct public function or unjustifiably endangers national interests, it would be hard to find fault with Robinson. “She works too hard?” hazards Eben Kirksey, an anthropologist who knows Robinson through their work on West Papua, after describing her as kind, down-to-earth, caring and charismatic.
Her clients are dissidents, whistle-blowers and activists who’ve taken on power and suffered for it.
Robinson, who grew up as one of six siblings in a “big country family” in the tiny town of Berry, Australia, says her time in West Papua was formative. “It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done, to this day, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like now if I hadn’t done it,” she says. She was 21 when she volunteered for a legal organization in West Papua, which has been under Indonesian military rule since the 1960s. Estimates of the number of West Papuans killed since then range from 100,000 to 500,000; activists say that violence against West Papuans who advocate independence is common and that it could qualify as a genocide.
Though she spoke fluent Indonesian at the time, Robinson was thrust into a situation she perhaps did not expect. The lawyers around her were subjected to constant ancaman, or threats, sometimes in person, sometimes by text message, sometimes clear, sometimes vague. One was shot at. Robinson’s work involved investigating extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions, including that of Benny Wenda, an activist imprisoned on false charges of killing a policeman. Robinson helped transport his wife and baby to a refugee camp in Papua New Guinea.
Watch Robinson at TEDxSydney, talking about the West Papuan struggle for self-determination.
Then came the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed more than 200 people, including 88 Australians. Robinson’s university gave her “marching orders” back to Australia, much against her wishes. She felt “devastated and horribly guilty about leaving — because I could leave,” she says, but soon learned that Wenda had managed to escape from prison. Later, Robinson helped Wenda and his family get asylum in the United Kingdom. They now live in Oxford, and Robinson is a frequent visitor.
“She could have just let West Papua and this particular family slip by the wayside, but instead she’s maintained a personal relationship,” says Kirksey, “not only ensuring their legal right to be in the U.K., but that daily life is good for them.” Many foreigners “go to these conflict zones to get a notch on their CV or the latest exclusive story, but Jen hasn’t been like that. She’s very under the radar.”
Julian’s one of my favorite people to debate with, actually. He’s incredibly smart and lots of fun to engage in debates…
Robinson is at her most fluid and passionate when speaking about her clients and causes. Last year, when TV news reporters interviewed her about being temporarily prevented from boarding an international flight at London’s Heathrow Airport, Robinson took the opportunity to plug her work in West Papua, which “doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” and tried to shift focus to frontline activists: “If it’s happening to lawyers, who are one step removed, what’s happening to the activists and the people we defend?”
“She’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met,” says human-rights lawyer Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He’s worked with Robinson on WikiLeaks matters as well as many others. At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Ratner watched Robinson approach Attorney General Eric Holder and ask, as she tells it, “How do you think history will reflect upon your treatment of WikiLeaks and Assange?” Holder’s guard went up, and he wouldn’t answer when she asked whether the U.S. government intends to prosecute Assange.
“That kind of courage,” says Ratner, “in public places to take people on and not back off, without screaming — just solid, strong — I haven’t really encountered that in someone so young.”
Robinson has a sunniness to her, a certain vivacity that you might not expect, given her intense workload, the threats she and her clients receive, and the high profile of her cases. Apparently she can carouse till the wee hours: “She’s Australian, and those people can stay out very late,” Ratner says. She also can surf, is adamant about physical exercise, and likes good food and drink. (“I get really knarky about bad food,” says Robinson. “And I’m sorry, but when you’re working on hard-core stuff all the time, you need a glass of wine now and then.”)
In 2011, Robinson took a position at a new organization called the Bertha Foundation. Her job is to meet with established human-rights lawyers around the world and connect them with ambitious potential protégés. The idea is to provide up-and-coming human-rights lawyers mentorship opportunities like the ones she had in West Papua.
As for what’s next? “We all ask ourselves that all the time,” says Ratner. Among the possibilities he’s envisioned: Robinson as a future prime minister of Australia, continuing as an activist lawyer, or becoming a rare queen’s counsel. Others could see her as head of Amnesty International or another human-rights defense organization.
For now, though, it’s obvious that Robinson derives fulfillment from her job. “This kind of work is fun!” she says. “It doesn’t mean it’s not hard or challenging or difficult, but it’s also really, really fun.” For her, working for human rights is not about being some sort of dour martyr, and she doesn’t understand why it’s sometimes made out to be.
Anyway, she adds, “You can’t take yourself too seriously. That’s a very Australian trait.”