“Democracy does not work on a ‘trust me’ basis”

  • October 7, 2020
“Democracy does not work on a ‘trust me’ basis”

Jennifer Gibson on how Gates Cambridge helped her in her current role as a human rights defender

My job is about accountability, so that governments know there is someone watching. That makes all of us safer.

Jennifer Gibson

When Jennifer Gibson started her MPhil at Cambridge in 2001 as part of the inaugural class of Gates Scholars, no-one knew what it meant to be a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Twenty years later, Jennifer is now a human rights lawyer focused on national security issues, something she never could have anticipated, but which she credits in no small part to her time as a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

Arriving in Cambridge that first year, Jennifer says, was a bit like arriving to a party nobody knew had started. Nothing was really established, not even the process for getting your scholarship award. Each college was doing it differently. Jennifer and her fellow scholars in the inaugural year of the programme felt they needed a voice so they could liaise with the Gates Cambridge Trust about issues that affected them and bring scholars together. Through a democratic process where scholars sought to figure out for themselves how they could represent the broad diversity of the scholarship body the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council was born. “We wanted everyone to feel part of it,” says Jennifer, who likens it to setting up a non-profit.

The scholars had to figure out how Cambridge worked and who they needed to speak to to get things done. There was some debate at the time about whether Gates Cambridge scholars should have such a platform or should try to integrate. In all of this the scholars were helped tremendously, says Jennifer, by the first Gates Cambridge Provost, Gordon Johnson, who operated an open door policy and was always willing to listen to what the scholars had to say.  Through the Council and its events, including a speaker series and orientation, a sense of allyship and identity formed and strong friendships were forged which, a few years later, led to the setting-up of the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association.

“The scholar-led nature of the community is its strength,” says Jennifer. “It makes it quite unique. It’s a scholarship that you can make your own. It felt like we could create a real multicultural space for international friendships around a shared belief that the scholarship was more than a pay cheque, that it had a bigger purpose.”

A transformative effect

Jennifer says Cambridge – and particularly Gates Cambridge – had a transformative impact on her career, helping her build the skills she uses daily in her human rights work as a lawyer advocating on behalf of civilians killed in drone strikes.

Jennifer says: “The best thing about Gates Cambridge and Cambridge generally was acquiring the ability to have conversations with anyone about anything. Now as a lawyer and working with governments, I realise what a key skill it is to be able to put people at ease and to ask the right questions even when you don’t know the area that person works in. In Cambridge, you often find yourself sitting at dinner next to people from completely different backgrounds to you and you have the most stimulating conversations. All the while you are developing skills you do not even realise you are developing. Cambridge taught me how to question and in turn, teach myself, a skill that can take you anywhere.”

Twenty years later, she says, Gates Cambridge still comes up in her daily life in almost unnoticeable ways, whether through keeping in touch with old friends, in public speaking or in her ability to engage with others and find common ground.

Early years

Jennifer was born in Michigan and went to Alma College, a small liberal arts college in Michigan which she graduated from with a multidisciplinary degree in foreign service. Before her degree she says she was convinced she would be a corporate lawyer, but Alma was very much a fork in the road that saw her taking the path less travelled. While at Alma she became involved in Alma’s award-winning Model UN team. Jennifer credits the Professor who ran the programme, Dr Derick Hulme, with changing her life. He not only challenged Jennifer, but also encouraged her to apply for national scholarships, something Jennifer wasn’t even aware existed.

When she made it to the interview round for one of those scholarships, the Truman Scholarship, Dr Hulme and almost a dozen professors who gave up precious time to help here prepare. Jennifer says in many ways the mock interviews they did with her were a much more severe grilling than what she faced in the real interview. It worked and she won the scholarship. “Alma were really supportive,” she says. “Picking it was one of the best decisions I have made.”

Aid work and law

When Jennifer left Cambridge, she initially worked for Camfed, monitoring and evaluating projects on girls education and young women’s empowerment in Africa. She then moved to Save the Children and worked on the design of a study of cash transfer schemes. She says she had limited experience with large scale studies, but the confidence to teach herself what she didn’t know – and ask questions – enabled her to take on the challenge and succeed.

Gradually, Jennifer began to question whether such programmes on their own could address the underlying issues. For example, cash transfers that encourage girls into education could end up worsening the problem if they were then subjected to gender-based violence or poor teaching at the secondary schools. “It was a systemic issue and I felt we were not getting to the root causes,” says Jennifer. “We were teaching girls about their rights, but they didn’t have the structures they needed to realise those rights. I wondered if we were doing more harm by essentially saying ‘you have this right, but you can’t exercise it because the system doesn’t allow for it’.”

Jennifer jokes that like any good American, she turned to the law for answers, leaving her job to study at Stanford so she could try to change those structural issues. In her last year she joined a human rights clinic and started working on drone strikes. It was 2011 and, at the time, there was little awareness about drones. “There was still the mentality that they were just for killing terrorists,” says Jennifer. She interviewed people whose family members had been killed in drone strikes and provided a legal analysis. Everything about drone strikes was cloaked in secrecy and she had to find ways of discovering the information she needed. “It was one of the most rewarding things I have done,” she says. Through that work she got to know Reprieve, a nonprofit organisation of international lawyers and investigators whose stated goal is to “fight for the victims of extreme human rights abuses with legal action and public education”.


After finishing law school, a full-time staff attorney position became available at Reprieve, and Jennifer took it. Now, eight years later, she is leading a team that investigates and advocates against countries’ use of lethal force as a counterterrorism tool. She works closely with civilian victims of covert US and UK drone strikes and raids, investigating their cases and trying to help them get accountability. She has testified about her work in briefings before the British Parliament, the European Parliament and the US Congress. In December 2015 she gave oral evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into the British use of drones for targeted killings.

She has also authored and co-authored several reports on US and UK drone use, including You Never Die Twice: Multiple Kills in the US Drone Programme; the Stanford/NYU report, Living Under Drones, one of the first comprehensive investigations into the impact of the CIA’s covert drone programme in Pakistan; and the University of Birmingham’s Policy Commission on the Security Impacts of Drones, chaired by the former head of GCHQ, Sir David Omand.

Jennifer says her role is ultimately about holding government to account, whether it is countries like the US carrying out the strikes, or their allies, like Germany and the UK, who are aiding them. To do this, she has to shed light on what is happening by putting together the pieces in a world of secrets. She then uses strategic litigation and advocacy to draw attention to the issue and the need for accountability.

As part of her work at Reprieve Jennifer frequently travels to countries and affected areas to meet with those who have been harmed. She has learnt the importance of deferring to the expertise of local partners and surrounding herself with “people smarter than me”. “You have a responsibility not to put people in danger. You have to be diligent about accuracy and evidence,” she says.


Governments often use national security laws as a way to stop people asking questions. Jennifer sees this as a problem. “Democracy does not work on a ‘trust me’ basis. It only works when we can hold governments to account. There are always going to be details that government needs to keep secret, but there also needs to be a certain base level of transparency. We don’t have to know everything, but we do need to understand the policy frameworks being used to take action in our name,” she says.

Over the years there have been some major wins. In 2019, a German court ruled that US drone strikes in Yemen were illegal and that the German government was complicit because it was allowing the US to use its territory to facilitate the strikes. The court found, in allowing the US to use the base, the German government was violating the right to life of Yemenis. The UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings called the decision, which was the first of its kind, a ‘watershed’ moment. The German government has appealed the case to the country’s highest administrative court. Jennifer hopes they will uphold the decision.

For her, though, it is not just legal wins that are important. “In the realm of national security, getting into court can often feel like a win. Real wins are few and far between. It’s why you have to focus on both the the court of law and the court of public opinion, so you can push for policy change. My job is about accountability, so that governments know there is someone watching. That makes all of us safer.”

*We will be publishing a profile from each of the 20 years of Gates Cambridge to celebrate our 20th anniversary.


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