Alumnus of the year 2014

Téa Braun

International human rights lawyer Treva (Téa) Braun has been named Alumna of the Year by the University of Essex for 2014. The award is usually awarded at the annual Graduation ceremonies, but due to work commitments Téa received her award at the 2015 ceremonies.

Téa, who has been Legal Director of the Human Dignity Trust in London since 2012, said her time at Essex had been “inspirational” and added: “It is an honour and a privilege to be awarded Alumna of the Year. I could never have got the knowledge I have been able to apply ever since without such a robust and in-depth programme of study. It has also meant long lasting friendships and memories. It was an absolutely influential part of my life.”

As an international human rights lawyer Téa over the past ten years has worked with governments, civil society and local communities in all regions of the world to promote and protect the right to equality. She has worked to tackle discrimination against women, indigenous people and sexual minorities.

Téa is a member of the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, which promotes the rule of law across the Commonwealth, a former member of the Editorial Board of the Commonwealth Human Rights Law Digest, and was recently recognised by the Law Society of England and Wales as a ‘Legal Hero’ for her work championing the human rights of sexual minorities globally.

She graduated with an LLM International Human Rights Law in 2005 after several years practising as a barrister before the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal of British Columbia in Canada. She was inspired to come to study at Essex’s Human Rights Centre after becoming aware of the level of “stigmatization, marginalisation and persecution” in the world. During her time at Essex she received the prestigious Chevening Scholarship.

After graduating Téa managed a legal and human rights programme for the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme, worked as Gender Equality Adviser at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and then became Human Rights Adviser at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Oration

Oration by Professor Geoff Gilbert, Department of Law

It is my privilege to present to you today, Téa Braun for the honour of Alumna of the Year. I presented the first ever Essex Alumna of the Year, Aisling Reidy, also a graduate of the LLM in International Human Rights Law, who was the youngest person ever to argue a case before the European Court of Human Rights and who is now Senior Legal Adviser at Human Rights Watch in New York.

Before coming to Essex, Téa had been a practising barrister on the West coast of Canada, appearing before the Supreme Court and the Appeals Courts; she did the LLM in the mid-2000s, where, amongst other things she took the modules in the Human Rights of Women, the Protection of Human Rights in Africa, and Human Rights and Development, all of which helped shape her subsequent career. She first worked with an organisation combating trafficking in Cameroon and then on the rights of marginalised indigenous groups in the Congo basin, based primarily in London but with intensive on-sight field visits. From there, she became the Gender Equality Adviser, promoting Women’s Human Rights in International Law for the Secretariat of the Pacific community based in New Caledonia and travelling around the region. She then moved back to London as Human Rights Adviser at the Commonwealth Secretariat where she was just missed another Essex graduate, Jade Cochran, who had just left. She is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association.

Téa’s year on the LLM at Essex has produced several high profile human rights advocates: Richard Grindell is Senior Protection Officer for the UNHCR in Nairobi; Juliana Cano is championing LGBT rights at the Human Rights Watch in New York; Gaelle Carayon is at REDRESS in London: Nancy Tapias worked at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat in London: Julie Broome is part of the Sigrid Rausing Trust. You get the idea that this was a group of students who were going on to make a difference, and Téa has been a large part of that both globally and in London, in the NGO world and in the international organisation world.

There’s a rich tradition of the LLM producing people that make a difference. Renata Dubini from the mid-1990s is now in charge of protection for UNHCR for the whole of the Americas and Mark Manly from 1998-99 is now UNHCR Representative (that’s Ambassador) in Mexico. Magdalena Sepulveda and Cephas Lumina from the same era are former UN special rapporteurs; Jean-Nicolas Beuze is in Lebanon for UNHCR where he is the Senior Protection Officer, having previously worked for Professor Sir Nigel Rodley on his work as Special Rapporteur on Torture. There’s another more recent graduate of Essex in Lebanon, Lena Haap, who is working on statelessness. You get the feeling that the Essex Spirit with its commitment to be passionate about your work is embodied in these graduates.

As I walked round campus today, I had a rather embarrassing moment where I caught myself on a video out of the corner of my eye. It was embarrassing because it was about some research which I hadn’t done alone; I had done it with somebody else, they weren’t there in the video. A woman called Anna Magdalena Rüsch. Yes, you’ve probably guessed already, another graduate of the University of Essex’s LLM in International Human Rights programme. At one point during that research project for UNHCR we were five kilometres from Boko Haram and the only thing between us was a very fordable river and you could see them looking over the river each night.

I have been privileged to work for over a quarter of a century with various people who have made the world a much better place. Téa Braun is one of those people. You don’t get to be Alumna of the Year without personal sacrifice. Spending time outside your own country of nationality, spending time working with groups who are not welcome in the societies in which they find themselves. All those things take courage, they take passion. Téa would never have been recognised by the Law Society as a legal hero for her work on the human rights of sexual minority’s globally, if she had not been passionate.

The Essex Spirit talks about being passionate. This University produces students who are passionate about their work. There are a group of graduand’s somewhere up there, all across the back who I hope are going to be inspired by Téa to go out and achieve exactly what she has achieved - maybe more, who knows. The world is a better place because of Essex’s work in human rights and our graduates generally. We send out people who make a difference with no thought of their own fame or celebrity.

Treasurer, the latest in a long line of amazing people to have graced this University, I present to you - Téa Braun.

Response

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.