Response by Téa Braun
Treasurer, members of faculty and staff, invited guests, and most importantly graduates.
It is an honour to receive this award and to be with all of you here today. I missed last year’s ceremony because of a Court of Appeal hearing in Singapore, and indeed I wasn’t even able to attend my own graduation ceremony back in 2006 as I think I was working in Cameroon at the time.
So I’m rather tardy in getting here, but thrilled to finally actually be in this cap and gown, with an even deeper sense of appreciation for this place after several years plying the trade for which the Human Rights Centre so brilliantly prepared me.
Rather naïvely, I undertook a business degree straight out of secondary school in Canada. I say naïvely because my only reason was that it sounded like a good degree to have. The fact that I had chosen my major by process of elimination was probably a good sign that I wasn’t in the right graduation ceremony back then.
It is a good degree to have, in retrospect, but I wasn’t enamoured and so I immediately went on and pursued a law degree, because I was fascinated by the way we human beings regulate our conduct through complex codes and constitutions in order to keep our lives orderly and protect our interests.
That continues to intrigue me, and after several years at the commercial bar I decided to pursue a third degree, a Masters in International Human Rights Law, this time because I was passionate; passionate about the law being used as a tool not for self-protection and advancement of interests but for the protection and advancement of others.
I hope that you are all here today because of passion, and that you will use that passion, whatever type of law you choose to practice, to first and foremost benefit the lives of others. I know that for me, the University of Essex played an absolutely central role in turning my passion into practice. I had the privilege of reading human rights law 10 years ago with such notable professors as the wonderful Sir Nigel Rodley, the late and incomparable Kevin Boyle, the power house Françoise Hampson and of course Geoff Gilbert who so masterfully expounded Refugee Law.
My focus, then as now, was on gender equality issues. The year I was here, 2005, was also the 10-year anniversary of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which as many of you know was the outcome document from one of the most significant global conferences on women’s human rights.
So in addition to my studies, and thanks to great support from the Human Rights Centre, I somehow convinced a bunch of people to give a bunch of money and with the help of several other Masters students I organised a conference on women’s human rights, here on campus, which was called Catalyst 2005, co-chaired by Kevin Boyle and Françoise Hampson. We brought speakers in from around the world to discuss the practical implementation of international legal standards on women’s human rights – the much harder bit than developing those standards – and it was a smash success with lots of vibrant discussion and participants from around the country.
So the Human Rights Centre was a very dynamic space for me, and really lived up to the global reputation it had for excellence, which brought me here in the first place as I’m sure it did you.
In 2010, five years after completing my studies here, I was working as Gender Equality Adviser to an inter-governmental organisation in the south Pacific, during the 15-year anniversary of Beijing, and found myself leading a regional project to analyse the extent to which that global Platform for Action was being implemented. The Pacific islands region, usually quite rightly associated with gorgeous palm fringed beaches and turtles bobbing in turquoise waters and wonderful smiling cultures, is also marked by some of the highest rates of gender-based violence, one of the lowest proportions of women in Parliament anywhere in the world, significant under-representation of women in the formal economy and legal systems that discriminate against women.
But shifts had also taken place. The region had achieved virtual gender parity in primary and secondary education, and the almost exclusively male political leaders from across the region began to publicly recognise, for the first time, that there was a need to proactively eliminate violence against women. So things were changing, but slowly.
And so it seems particularly fitting for me that this year, when I’ve finally managed to make it back here to Essex for the first time since 2005, is the 20th anniversary of that 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.
Since leaving Essex I’ve had the very humbling privilege of working with amazing, resilient women, and men, all around the world including with communities in Cameroon to eliminate trafficking in girls for sexual or domestic labour exploitation; with impoverished indigenous women from Uganda speaking for the first time in their own right on behalf of their community before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; with Pacific Island women in their State reporting to the UN Women’s Committee and their efforts to eliminate violence and increase women’s political and economic participation; and currently with a lesbian woman from Jamaica, who was shot twice in anti-gay violence and yet had no State protection, whom I’m helping bring a case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alongside a gay man who was also persecuted on the basis of his sexual orientation. This work is being assisted by Clara Sandoval from the Human Rights Centre, and Geoff it is thanks to refugee law that these two are now living safely in The Netherlands and Canada, respectively.
I mention all of this because I wanted to take this brief opportunity today to suggest that 20 years on from the Beijing Platform, and standing here amongst this group of sharp young legal minds, we still always need to reflect on how well the law, any kind of law, is implemented for and actually benefits different groups in society.
And because I hope that whatever type of law you practice or indeed whatever field you enter, you will always be conscious to factor in the different issues facing women and men, gay and lesbian people, ethnic minorities, disabled people and so on. Access to public and private spaces, including legal and political spaces, looks different for different people. Do what you can at every stage of your career to help break down the historical, structural and social barriers and biases that still exist everywhere around us.
That is one of the most powerful aspects of being a lawyer: we have the ability not just to apply but to question, challenge and change those complex codes and constitutions that govern and determine human experiences.
One day it won’t matter if you are male or female, gay or straight, religious or atheist. All that will matter is what you bring to the table, what difference you make in the world.
And that is the final message I wanted to convey. The difference you will make in the world will depend not only on what you do, but even more importantly on how you do it. You will come across many people in law, even human rights law, who steam roll over people along the way. Don’t be that person. Listen, a lot, before you form your opinions. If you work internationally, put local people first, always. Empower those you work with to be the authors of their own law reform or achieve their own vindication of human rights – don’t play the saviour role. Be driven more by sustainable outcomes than by deadlines and personal agendas.
I know that all of you will bring a lot to the table, and that you will make a real difference in the world.
Thank you for allowing me to show up one or 10 years late, depending on how you look at it, to be here with you to celebrate this wonderful field of study and practice. And thanks to the Human Rights Centre for the brilliant place that it was 10 years ago, and clearly still is today.
I wish all of you extremely well in your exciting journeys and careers.