Tracy Robinson is the 2019 recipient of the Prominent Women in International Law Award by ASIL. Ms. Robinson is an expert on law and policies related to gender, sexuality, and human rights, especially in the Caribbean region. She is a senior lecturer and Deputy Dean of the University of the West Indies Faculty of Law at Mona, Jamaica, where she co-founded and co-directs the university’s Faculty of Law UWI Rights Advocacy Project (U-RAP). In 2020, she was appointed a member on the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya newly established by the UN Human Rights Council. Ms. Robinson served as a Commissioner on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) from 2012 to 2015, and the body’s president between 2014 and 2015. There, she also served as the Rapporteur on the Rights of Women and the first Rapporteur on the Rights of LGBTI persons. In 2016, she was appointed a Commissioner on the WHO/PAHO-led Independent Review of Equity and Health Inequalities in the Americas.
* This transcript was edited and condensed for a better reading experience. Scroll down to watch the thoughtful discussion between Ms. Robinson and ILJ’s board member Beier Lin.
I. Career as a Caribbean Human Rights Lawyer
“My work at home is the most valuable.”
You are a highly achieved human rights lawyer and you also call yourself a legal feminist. What brought you to a career in international human rights, and how did you become a legal feminist?
Maybe we can start by talking about my understanding of myself as a legal feminist. I wouldn’t describe it as a process of conversion. For me, feminism, the relationship between it and myself—is how I became who I am. It is very much a part of how I understand myself and have for all of my adult life.
Although there is not a single moment in which I became feminist, my year at Yale Law School was foundational. There I did courses with Vicki Schultz and Reva Siegel. Those courses were transformational and gave me an anchoring which helped me think about not only myself, but the work I wanted to do.
To turn to your question about human rights law, I wouldn’t think of myself as someone who has had a career in human rights law but more as someone who has had important opportunities in it. I exist in many spaces professionally including those in international human rights law, and that has always been valuable to me. But I am more outside of the space than I am in it, and I think that is true for an increasing number of international human rights actors.
What do you mean by being “more outside of it,” considering that you have spent such a successful and long career practicing in it?
My everyday work is teaching domestic law to Caribbean students. I primarily teach public law—in U.S. terms, constitutional law—and family law as well. I teach some international human rights principles, but often in the context of domestic courts. In that sense, I am not the primary teacher in that area. Beyond the classroom, a lot of my work is within the Caribbean region where we rely heavily on international human rights principles. But still, we are functioning and operating in domestic spaces and domestic courts, working with domestic judges and lawyers. That is what I mean that more of my work is in the domestic space than in the international human rights space.
You’ve taken a wide range of roles throughout your career: teacher, writer, litigator, partner with international organizations… Is there any particular role that is your favorite, or is there a particular project that you’re extremely proud of?
Working “at home” is the most valuable for me. Despite my work on issues related to the Americas and also Libya, the work within the Caribbean, and when I think of home I think of the entire Caribbean region—and working with colleagues who also teach public law and human rights in the Faculty of Law UWI Rights Advocacy Project—has been the most rewarding.
It is the most rewarding not simply because of what we end up doing. It is very much because of the process of working with colleagues and students who care equally about our shared goals. The work has been humbling and instructive. I have been guided slowly on how to work better with others and with communities.
Is my understanding correct that, it is the work that you’re currently doing, which is deeply rooted in the region with your colleagues and within your community, that values the most to you at this moment?
It is a good way of thinking about it. From another perspective, it is the work I have spent the longest time doing consistently. It is not necessarily that my work outside of the Caribbean is not equally important and valuable; but it is at home where I have been inhabiting with a community of others and serving the same communities for the longest period of time.
You have worked extensively both within the Caribbean region and also outside of it. Are there any differences in the type of work that you do? Do you tend to operate with different types of strategies, set different priorities, or adopt different style of advocacy when working in different spaces?
My roles have been different. At some point I was a consultant to international organizations. More recently I have been a part of independent mechanisms functioning within organizational spaces, for example, the new fact-finding mission in Libya or my time on the IACHR. When I am in the Caribbean, I often take a much more direct advocacy role, acting on behalf of or working very closely with NGOs and communities facing human rights violations.
The first thing I always try to do is to figure out what my role is, because that role changes. The role may be clearly defined somewhere in a constitutive instrument, including about what I am expected to do. But invariably, there is more to what is expected that you have to carefully discern, from your environment, from the dialogue you have with others about why you are there and the importance of it. The thing I have taken to every part of my work is the business of listening very keenly and early: this idea of making sense of who you are in a particular place, what you are meant to do, what really matters in the very finite time, and what are the interests at stake, you have to listen.
It is very difficult to listen when you are talking. Often it does require some discipline to engage in the practice of quiet learning through listening. I found it helpful, even when I am expected to hit the ground running right away. I have often stopped and paused to learn enough to be able to contribute meaningfully. Because, you are always being asked to function in new environments and there is a humility you have to bring to the work because, despite there always being a skill which you have and some knowledge which you will bring, there is always a gap—and a big part of your role is discerning and responding to the gap. That takes some quiet time and some careful understanding of the new space first.
To listen, to fully observe, and to understand what is really going on, is this something that you would recommend every junior professional or every student to acquire as an important skill?
Listening is the key. I think of my former role in the IACHR often as listening to the victims. I have a deep responsibility to faithfully listen to—not only hear but represent through some process in the Inter-American system—what happened to them and what it required to repair the violation. It is an integral part of many parts of human rights work.
I would say listening is more suited to my personality –– I am truly an introspective person. I have met and worked with a range of persons who are ready to offer their thoughts early. But I have benefited from the quietness. It is disarming, including for you, as well as others who are waiting to hear from you. Therefore, you may want to spend a moment to make sense, though it cannot be a long moment.
Do you think the ability to listen is something that female lawyers tend to do relatively well?
I don’t know and don’t want to suggest whether women have a natural instinct for this. However, I might suggest the reason for such perception, which is not an entirely happy one: many of us as women have to find our way. We have to clear space to be able to function and work, and some of that space-clearing work is quiet work. At other times it cannot be quiet work because we don’t always meet spaces which intend to, or wish to, treat women as equals. Thus, learning your environment is a responsiveness to environments which have not always happily included women or many other minorities as equals.
II. Working as a Woman in International Law
“You choose the community.”
Do you think there are any distinct opportunities or challenges offered by the field of international human rights for women lawyers? Do you think there is anything that is distinct about this field that you would want to flag or highlight as a female lawyer?
There is a lot that is not distinct, which comes as a surprise to many women and minority lawyers. By that I mean that institutions that work on human rights issues, that are committed to addressing these issues, may not themselves be either just or egalitarian spaces. The expectation is that, since you work in a place committed to human rights, therefore it must also be one that embodies these norms in the sets of human rights policies and rules which apply at the workplace. Sadly, many encounter a workplace that is not just or equal. As a result, women and persons of color spend their time not only working to advance human rights externally and on behalf of others in the region. They are also pressing for policies aimed at promoting equality and accountability within the work space, which was certainly the case during my time at the Inter-American Commission.
The structure of many human rights institutions does not lend themselves to equality. There is often a strong professional class and staff working full time within the organization. And there is another class, the “commissioner class,” composed by members of treaty bodies—special rapporteurs, commissioners, experts—who operate in a slightly different space within the same organization. This structure produces hierarchies which can lead to double standards or the absence of robust standards for everybody working in the organization. It also produces elitism, in respect of which there is a real need to push back in order to promote the overall goals of human rights. This idea that one has to also engender equality inside of human rights spaces sometimes takes others by surprise.
How do you think we should tackle these challenges that are baked into the institutions within this field?
Not with silence. There is a temptation to not speak about the problems aloud publicly, and to see if we can ultimately resolve them quietly, so that the institution maintains its “strong” image. But I think openness, forthrightness, and the addressing by many of us who hold privileges in some spaces, even if we face discrimination in others, are all important. The expert group has the responsibility to call for accountability and to be accountable ourselves.
Moreover, thinking only about one aspect of lack of diversity and inequality and not others is deeply disruptive and damaging to the organizations themselves. For example, having spent four years in the Inter-American system, I was very much struck by the absence of indigenous people and people of color—in a region strongly populated by both communities. I certainly noted that the institution had to work through machismo, an environment in which women were not always respected or treated as equals, and the struggles around women’s leadership. Still, an organization cannot have credibility when working on the issues of others while the organization has not yet come to terms with them itself. And the questions of racism and colonialism are certainly big ones for international human rights law to still come to terms with.
Are there any opportunities unique for us in the human rights field to try to change that?
Yes, and I saw the example of that with women in the Inter-American Commission who, in the face of a crisis around allegations of sexual violence within the institution, rallied around the creation of policies to address all of the issues we just discussed in the context of work. Many of us see through our work, either at the activist level or institutionally, the value of working together. And I certainly saw the value of the community of women and men who said it was time for change, it was time to strengthen the institutional policies, and have insisted that the credibility of the institution requires both inward looking and outward looking.
I talk about the Inter-American system because I spent most time there, but this is true throughout international organizations with the human rights mechanisms. Therefore, I see opportunities, particularly for professional lawyers working within these organizations, to say it is time to end the dissonance between who we are to the outside and who we are internally.
Are there any important role models who have helped you navigate through all of this? Are there any lessons that you learned from the people who are pushing for changes, or from the women who were there before you?
I have been well mentored, guided, and cared for by communities of women, and that has been foundational. But those women, even the older ones, are my friends. For me, one of the foundational lessons is the lifelong partnerships I have developed with others who are like minded, who share my goals, who support and who guide, and who will sometimes agree with me and sometimes not, but who share a closely-knit and supportive space throughout. That notion of family extends in multiple directions, even to some who are younger than me. The community of similarly committed persons who are willing to work together is the most productive and transformative in providing the mentorship, which in turn has allowed me to do the things I have managed to.
Do you think that mentorship and community is important for other women and other marginalized groups?
Yes. When you are doing human rights work, look for decent, generous, committed persons who you want to work with, not who you want to work for. Many of us, regardless of who our nominal “boss” is, have had a community of persons over decades who have walked—not in front of, not behind, but often together with ourselves. You may not always be in the same place working on the same project; but you may connect on other things at various points. I think of human rights work as involving lifelong partnerships with others. Those communities are especially important for women and others who find themselves in places where they do not always belong, but have important work to do.
And you choose the community. It is not a community picked for you, but one you pick for yourself and slowly develop and acquire.
III. International Law to Promote Women’s Voices
“Empowerment is even more important than litigation.”
If you have to pick one most important issue faced by women at this moment, what would that issue be? How does your current work attempt to address or intersect with this issue?
When I heard that question, I thought about, where are the gaps, where are there serious violations? But at the same time, I think of one of the things I have said often to myself, that I want to know what are our, women’s, imagined lives? I recognize that the harms we face are debilitating, and I have worked around many of those harms. The combined impact of violence, poverty, and conflict have damaged women’s ability to choose and to have, as we would say in the Inter-American system, “their own life project.” But increasingly for me it is less about the issue and more about empowerment or elevation of voice. In the end, what has been the most valuable for me as a Caribbean feminist is the possibility that the work I do, regardless of the topic, can contribute to women’s empowerment and women’s increased ability to decide for themselves and to have more of what they wish for their lives possible.
I think of the work which we did over a decade with trans women in Guyana, who faced criminalization in the Georgetown area and were discriminated in the health, educational, and housing sectors, and in simply walking on the streets. I think about not simply our work but how those women created alongside us their own movement and community of activists, which sometimes coalesced with ours but certainly developed its own agenda. To me, that empowerment is even more important than the successful and important litigation we pursued, which ended up before the highest court of appeal for Guyana, the regional Caribbean Court of Justice. I hope the process of our work can create more space for different groups of women who face hardships and vulnerabilities in our societies to determine who they are and who they want to be in our societies.
Creating more space for local women to empower themselves.
Absolutely. Movements will determine what communities are valuable to them. The trans community, for example, are working cross borders in the Caribbean, in Latin America, and globally. But for so many of us, we have become who we are in community. Sometimes we need to engender a space of stepping back, not forward, so that others can have space to build the communities which are valuable to their own transformation. That is a critical part of the work that I care about.
Do you think the current domestic, regional, and international human rights is sufficient in offering and protecting this space of empowerment?
There are limitations. Like Kenji Yoshino says, “law will never fully apprehend us.” We cannot expect or hope that legal structures are going to make sense of our entire humanity. Nevertheless, law still has its value. Those structures in the name of human rights institutions and domestic courts have had value in giving voice to some and creating more space for dialogue for some. However, it is important to appreciate that the overall work that we must engage in has to go beyond legal structures and human rights institutions.
Are there any particular trends and challenges in the human rights field that you are seeing right now, especially in light of recent events and global situations? How have you seen activists responding to those trends and challenges, especially when the tools we have are often not very sufficient?
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, if you are in the United States or Brazil or the Caribbean, you may ask questions, as many feminists have, about the use of criminalization to address gender inequalities. One of the major questions raised by contemporary feminism is: has criminalization served the ends of gender justice well? That is an important question as we are attempting to advance gender justice and often working with templates with strong criminalization elements.
However, there are distinctions between places in which criminalization is not working well because of the over incarceration of, for example, Black men in the United States, and places in which it is not working well because there is no accountability—no one is being criminalized. There is a need to think more about how the debates take shape in some places where criminalization has materialized in the form of incarceration that are deeply unequal and racialized, and other places in which the State does little or nothing. I am not suggesting that these are entirely different spaces; but the criminalization debate forces us to ask how is law working in diverse spaces. I don’t know the answer to that. It is an ongoing question that many more of us in the Global South need to be a part of.
If you have a young woman lawyer who is very passionate about using their skill sets to do something, for example, to fight against incarceration based on a person’s race, color, or ethnicity, what advice would you give to that person starting out in this field?
It might be to say that you are likely to meet a surprisingly hierarchical field. If you are a junior, you are going to walk into spaces where seniority means something. In some cases, one has to contest them and challenge the ways in which those hierarchies are detrimental to you as a young professional. But my advice is what I gave earlier: to focus not only on who you work for but who you work with; to build vibrant, long-lasting, diverse communities of persons who share your goals but don’t have the exact same ideas as you do. Communities that through your joint and collective initiatives and efforts, you can see your way from one challenging moment to another, from one opportunity to another. I am thinking of folks who will be supportive of you, guide you and will be with you in what for many will be a lifelong project of work.
And to listen and to observe, but also to take space when necessary.
Absolutely. Sometimes when you are listening and observing you might be talking separately to your community and receiving guidance and wisdom, so the space of listening is a dynamic one. It is not a static space of absolute silence and no movement. It is one in which one takes care and learns from others in one moment and in one place, where one speaks in another space and makes noise as needed, and where one carefully works through and determines what strategy and action to take. Strategic work often requires thoughtful quiet moments.
Thank you so much, Ms. Robinson. I am sure our broad readership will find your experience, your insights, and your advice extremely helpful.