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Human Rights Work Combines with Law Degree for One SIS Alumna’s Ideal Career

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Robin Gary, SIS/MA ’03, WCL/JD ’03, always had an innate desire to help others.

Whether it was through social work, teaching English internationally, or working on constitutional review issues in Iraq, Gary always wanted to serve.

“I always had the desire to be helping—and helping the situation, whatever it was,” Gary said. “That was always there.”

From a young age, Gary also developed an interest in human rights. A native of northern Virginia and the daughter of a women’s rights activist and a lawyer, Gary remembers attending women’s rights marches on the National Mall in DC with her mother as a young child.

Those experiences, combined with her desire to help others, spurred an interest in human rights work that would later translate into a law career spanning multiple countries and continents. We sat down with Gary to learn more about her time in the JD/MA program at AU and learn how she applies her law degree to human rights work in Iraq.

Early Years

Gary’s interest in human rights and helping others led her to pursue an undergraduate degree in social work from the University of Vermont. After finishing her degree, she spent a year in Ecuador teaching English through WorldTeach, a program founded by a group of Harvard graduates in 1986 to advance education in places lacking educational resources.

During Gary’s time in Ecuador, the nation experienced a major economic crisis that triggered country-wide strikes. As she watched the strike unfolding across the nation, Gary made a decision that would ultimately shift the trajectory of her career.

“I just felt that I could do more to help, and I wanted to do more,” Gary recalled. “That moment really was when I decided that going to law school, I might be able to have more effect and help people.”

Gary began law school at Washington College of Law in 2000—the same law school her father and brother attended. Shortly after arriving on campus, she learned about the JD/MA program and decided to pursue a master’s degree at SIS.  

 “I had an interest in international development and human rights that I wanted to combine [with the law degree] and do something with,” Gary said. “It was within the first few days I was there that I met someone who was doing [the JD/MA program], and so I started looking into it and thought, ‘this is what I've been looking for’.”

While pursuing her law degree and master’s degree in international affairs, Gary took all the human rights courses she possibly could and participated in the International Human Rights Law Clinic. Throughout law school, Gary knew she wanted to pursue human rights work post-grad, though transitioning into that work directly would prove to be a challenge.

Charting a Career Path

After graduation, Gary struggled to find a position in the human rights field. Eventually, she followed guidance to acquire strict legal skills and landed at Paul, Weiss LLP doing anti-trust work. After a few years in her role, Gary still felt the pull toward human rights and international work.

She’d eventually get the opportunity to delve into human rights work when a friend working in Baghdad reached out about an opportunity with the Public International Law & Policy Group, a global pro bono law firm founded by SIS and WCL professor Paul Williams. From there, Gary went on to work with the Institute for International Law & Human Rights (an organization created by former colleagues) spending a total of three and a half years in Iraq working on constitutional review issues, which entailed working with parliamentarians and judges to review Iraq’s constitution.

Williams said Gary’s contributions during her time in Iraq with PILPG were “reflective of her ability to apply classroom knowledge to complex real-world challenges—an embodiment of the ethos we strive to instill in our graduates."

"Robin Gary is a testament to the interdisciplinary strength and global impact of our programs at SIS and WCL,” Williams said. “Her academic excellence and commitment to practical application were evident in her classes and her invaluable work with PILPG in Iraq. Robin represents the best of our community's dedication to making a meaningful difference in the world."

After a few years in Baghdad, another connection Gary made in Iraq reached out about an opportunity to work on the constitution process in Somalia. A month later, Gary was on the ground in Djibouti helping with the UN-supported effort to draft a constitution in Somalia.

“I was working on the drafting of the Constitution with their Constitution Committee, which included 30 Somalis from all different facets of their society,” Gary said, noting that she also supported efforts to adopt the constitution through a Constituent Assembly. 

Once the constitution was adopted in Somalia, Gary returned to DC to be closer to family and try to live a “normal life”; however, the pull to do international human rights work remained strong.

“I was really trying to find a job that I would enjoy and give me the same experience and satisfaction in DC and in the states that I had abroad, and I didn’t really find that,” Gary recalled.

Living and Working Abroad

After a few years in the US, Gary would once again find herself in Baghdad—this time, working as the Iraq Country Director for the Institute for International Law and Human Rights. In this role, Gary currently oversees three projects funded by the State Department.

The main project is a parliamentary support project in which Gary and her colleagues help to support the Iraqi parliament with different draft laws by working with various committees. Gary explained that this entails analyzing and studying draft laws proposed by committees or individuals in the Iraqi parliament and providing feedback on international standards and comparative best practices. Gary and her team will also go article by article, suggesting language that can strengthen the draft provisions and answering questions from members of parliament.

“We try to be very neutral and just provide the effects of what their decisions may be, allowing them to decide what is best for that,” Gary explained.

Gary also oversees a State Department-funded project that aims to support better evidence-based approaches for the Iraqi judiciary. In practice, Gary explained that the goal of the project is to “get the Court of Cassation to stop relying on confessions and anonymous witness statements in terrorism cases.”

The Court of Cassation in Iraq is the highest court of appeals in Iraq. Through the judicial support project, Gary and her team work with investigative judges in investigative courts, which is similar to the prosecutor and district attorney roles in the US.

“The High Judicial Council and the Court of Cassation have adopted some of our recommendations and issued directives to the full judiciary to use certain things we've developed with them—different referral and judgment templates and human rights checklists that we will be training judges to use at the beginning of the year,” Gary explained.

One of the procedures the court has adopted is related to teleconferencing, which Gary said is significant for witnesses, victims, and survivors who can now testify from a distance without being forced to return to Iraq. This will prove especially significant to Yezidi survivors who fled Iraq to be able to provide witness statements and apply for reparation benefits under the landmark Yezidi Survivors Law, which Gary also assisted in the development and adoption of.

The third project Gary oversees is focused on ensuring access to identity documentation for internally displaced people in Iraq. She explained that this project is the most difficult of the three because the problem is “almost unsolvable.”

“There are many internally displaced people, as well as people with perceived affiliation to ISIS, and those coming back from Syria at the moment through the al-Hol camps and other places, who don't have what we call base foundational documentation—birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, divorce certificates,” Gary explained. “So, they can't prove that they're Iraqi, and if you don't have these documents to prove you’re Iraqi, you then can't get the unified identity card or your Jensia card, which in Iraq, you need to be able to do anything—to be able to work, to be able to move, to be able to go to school, to be able to get social services, or own property.”

As a result, people without these documents face a real “uphill battle” to prove that they are Iraqi, and the impacts are particularly acute for women and children who are often left with “no way to support themselves,” Gary said.

Gary’s organization focuses on this problem at the policy level. As part of the project, her team worked with an Iraqi organization to research how directives and policies on this issue are implemented across different governments in Iraq. The team is currently finishing a report that will showcase the results of the research, while also working with Iraqi decision-makers to come up with “implementable solutions.”

Advice for Grads

When reflecting on her career path, Gary said a major part of getting to where she is today was networking. For law students interested in getting into human rights work, Gary recommends keeping in touch with mentors and connections because you never know when an opportunity might pop up.  

“I was not the top of my class; I was pretty much middle-of-the-road,” Gary said. “I did the Human Rights Clinic. I did all the extra stuff. I didn't do a summer associate thing because I didn't want to go that route, and I never wanted to be at a law firm. It was all about networking.”

Gary also encourages those interested in human rights work to “keep trying,” even if it takes some creativity to get into the field.

“It’s not easy to get into, and it’s not easy work, but keep trying,” Gary said. “It might take some creativity and a bit more time, but keep trying for it.”