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How Professor Robin Warner forged a career in international affairs and blazed a trail for women along the way.

Professor Robin Warner has always had the sea in her veins. Her grandfather was a merchant seaman who spent much of his life, during the early 20th century, on the water. He saw out the two World Wars from the deck of a ship.

Her father would spend his time building boats, which he would then use to take his children exploring Sydney Harbour from their home in Hunters Hill. For Robin, it was the start of a lifelong fascination with the power, beauty and potential of the ocean.

As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.

Moby Dick

A love of the law and the sea

Many years later, that connection has only strengthened, and as Robin reflects on the triumphs and complexities of her career, it is clear that she has always attempted to remain true to her twin passions: the sea and the law.

“There was always a big family push to be involved in the sea,” says Robin, from her office at Innovation Campus, many years after those sailing adventures on the harbour. The ocean really captivated me, but I wanted to see how the law connected with the ocean.”

In 1979, Robin graduated from the University of Sydney with a double degree in arts/law. She joined the Navy as a legal officer, a move inspired by her familial link to the service and her desire to serve her country.

At the time of Robin began her career with the Navy, Law of the Sea was becoming more prominent. Three years later, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international agreement that governs the rights and responsibilities of all nations in regards to the world’s oceans, would be signed in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

“Law of the Sea really excited me as a lawyer,” Robin says. “Rather than being in a dry, dusty solicitor’s office, I wanted to be involved in naval operations, to know what laws applied to the oceans and how that might affect the Navy.

“I love that being legally trained gives you the opportunity to influence how human society is regulated and being an expert in international law provides the opportunity to affect and play a role in international affairs.”

“I had a strong interest in naval operations in our region and beyond,” Robin says. “My brother was in the Navy and my father was in the Navy Reserve so there was a strong family connection. In my family, there has always been a strong sense of responsibility and service to your country.

“My other grandfather, who was not a merchant seaman, served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front during World War II.”

Making waves for positive change

So began a two-decade association with the Royal Australian Navy, a career that took Robin around the country and around the world, and only enhanced her love of the sea. But it was not without its challenges; as one of the few females in the Navy, Robin was privy to a world of discrimination and transformation, particularly as she juggled her thriving career with the early years of motherhood.

“It was a time of the formation of the Law of the Sea. What is now the fundamental constitution for our oceans was being negotiated then, so it was a really exciting era to be advising the Navy on what was happening in the UN and our relationship with the oceans,” says Robin, now Professor at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), based at the University of Wollongong.

“The connections were being drawn between the environment and the ocean, and how we should use the ocean in a sustainable way so that future generations would have access to ocean resources. It was a critical period for the Navy, which was just starting to grapple with the impact of its operations on the ocean.

“At the time, there were only about 12 legal officers in the whole Navy and no-one saw a need for legal officers to be on board the ships. That all changed in the late 1990s with the East Timor operations, and finally the Navy saw the need to have legal officers join the ships being deployed.”

Robin was sent to the fledgling republic in 2000, during the phase of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), to draft a UNTEAT Regulation establishing a new Defence Force in East Timor. It was a time of great upheaval, a fascinating period in which to have a front-row seat to the formation of a new nation.

While in Australia, Robin’s career was divided between Canberra and Sydney, but she also spent two years on exchange with the US Navy, based at the International Law Division of the JAG Corps in the Pentagon Washington, DC.

Her experiences, as a mother of two and one of only a handful of female officers navigating the incredibly masculine environment provided a unique insight into the vast changes that have taken place in gender equality in only a few short decades.

At the time I joined the Navy, women on ships were not allowed to go beyond Australia’s territorial sea limit, which was three nautical miles then. Can you believe that?

Professor Robin Warner

“It wasn’t easy when I joined the Navy,” says Robin, who has two adult daughters. “It was full time or nothing. I would start before 8am and if the admiral wanted to work until 10pm at night, then you worked until 10pm.

“Things have improved now. I’ve spoken to young women in the Navy now and the flexibility is there for them, they can work part-time and childcare is provided.

“When I joined the Navy, it was a very male-dominated organisation. At the time I joined the Navy, women on ships were not allowed to go beyond Australia’s territorial sea limit, which was three nautical miles then. Can you believe that? They were just trialling having women at sea and I don’t know what they expected would happen once women crossed the three-nautical mile mark.

“It was really bemusing to me. Women had just begun to receive the same level of pay, and women in the Navy used to wear different stripes on their uniform – blue rather than gold – and have different ranks.”

In the early 1980s, female Navy officers belonged to a special section of the Royal Australian Navy, the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service, a separate, women-only organisation. However, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 meant the system could not be maintained, and legislative amendments involved in the change fell to Robin, as a legal officer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was not without opposition, from both male and female naval officers.

“We had to get rid of the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service – they were known as WRANS – regulations and that task fell to me, because I was a woman,” Robin recalls with a laugh. “It produced some interesting interactions with various people around Canberra.

There was even opposition from female officers who had been WRANS, who had been in the service a long time and had their own customs, and they were very resistant to the changes. “It was fascinating to be part of that transition. There was a lot of discrimination towards women.

“I’m really happy to think that myself and a few other women who were there at the time blazed a trail for the generations to come.”

Four WRANS in the medical records section of the depot hospital. Photo: Australian War Memorial / 122533

During her two decades in the Navy, Robin, rose to the rank of Captain and became Director of International Law for the Australian Defence Force and Deputy Director of Naval Legal Services. But, in search of a new challenge, she undertook her PhD. She graduated in 2006, her research focusing on the international law framework for the protection of the marine environment and conservation of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.

The high seas, or areas beyond national jurisdiction, are an area of research and policy that truly captivates Robin. In her 10 years in academia, she has broken ground in campaigning for a new UN treaty that covers the marine areas beyond a nation’s 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

High court on the high seas

The high seas – sometimes referred to as international waters – are free national sovereignty, with ships subjected to the laws of their flag nation (flown on their flag). Traditionally, it is an area where few have dared venture, except for intrepid fishermen and explorers.

However, the forces of globalisation and the desire of nations to explore beyond their borders have created demand for a new convention governing the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.

“Decades ago, not many people ventured out on to the high seas. But as the 20th century progressed, human impacts on the ocean as a whole have become greater. There have been advances in scientific knowledge on marine biodiversity, advances in technology so we can now access the deep sea, and there’s a need to access these routes for trade purposes,” Robin says.

“There’s also a greater interest from people in going out there, in seeing what is beyond the 200-nautical mile mark.”

For Robin, the opportunities presented by greater exploration of the high seas – such as the potential to unlock deep-sea marine materials that could aid scientific breakthroughs – are exciting, but need to be balanced with a sustainable approach to ensure the ocean’s resources are not plundered.

She is currently involved in a series of preparatory committee meetings at the United Nations, which, over the past couple of years has taken her to Chile, the Philippines, Germany and New York.

“I love that being legally trained gives you the opportunity to influence how human society is regulated,” Robin explains when asked what motivates her desire to make an impact on a global stage. “Being an expert in international law provides you with the opportunity to affect and play a role in international affairs.”

Decades ago, not many people ventured out on to the high seas. But as the 20th century progressed, human impacts on the ocean as a whole have become greater.

Professor Robin Warner

It has been a long road and it’s not over yet. Robin is hoping that the formal negotiations for the treaty – in which all countries, both landlocked and those with coastlines, are able to have a say in the areas beyond national jurisdiction – will commence in 2018.

“It has taken 15 or 16 years to get to this point, and a lot of determination and perseverance. There are so many things on the international agenda. If you think of oceans, they’re a bit out of sight, out of mind. Global poverty, refugees, armed conflict on land, climate change; all these issues have a higher profile than the oceans.

“It’s very exciting, but it’s also very complex and far-reaching.”

After more than three decades of devoting her career, and life, to the water, Robin has not lost her love for the sea. It continues to fascinate and inspire her. In her role at ANCORS, she relishes the diversity of her research, the opportunity to work with people from around the world, and the travel that takes her from cosmopolitan cities to island nations.

“The ocean is an enduring source of mystery and inspiration for me,” Robin says. “When I was studying arts/law, I always wanted to do something with the oceans, that was always on my mind. But this is my dream job. I love what I do every day.”

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