SA judge appointed UN rights chief

30 July 2008

South African judge Navanethem Pillay has been appointed as the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Instituted in 1993, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the highest UN office dealing with human rights. Pillay succeeds Canadian Louise Arbour, who completed her five-year term on 30 June.

An activist attorney under apartheid, Pillay has served as a judge on the International Criminal Court based in The Hague in the Netherlands since 2003. Prior to that, she served as both judge and president on the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which she joined in 1995.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement on Monday that he was “gratified” that his nomination of Pillay had been endorsed by the UN General Assembly.

Ban’s spokesperson, Michele Montas, said earlier this month that Ban was committed to ensuring that human rights remained high on the UN’s agenda, and was “determined to fully support Ms Pillay in carrying out her work, including with increased resources, as approved by the General Assembly.”

Pillay’s nomination, Ban said in a statement last month, was made at the end of a “clear and rigorous” selection process which included consultations with UN member states, international non-governmental organisations and human rights organisations.

Personal understanding of discrimination

In an interview with UN Radio on Tuesday, Pillay said she came to her work with a personal understanding of human rights violations, based on her experience of living in South Africa during apartheid.

“I think I come with a real understanding of what it’s like to have your human rights violated and to have it violated for a very long time without any justice in sight, and the apartheid struggle taught that.”

She cited the establishment of the Human Rights Council, where she said member states now subscribed to the notion of accountability, monitoring and peer reviews, as an example of the dramatic change that has taken place globally in the human rights field.

“I subscribe to this new system of international criminal justice – which we have only very recently, for the past 15 years – as a strong signal that … anyone, whether a head of state or a militia leader, will be held accountable and punished.”

At the same time, Pillay acknowledged that she would have to operate in a different manner in her new post compared to her previous work on criminal tribunals, even though she said there were close links between the two activities.

“The criminal trials have the power to punish; the High Commissioner has to find various approaches of persuasion, of strong talk, or to develop civil society organizations to meet the source of the violations,” she said.

Humility and tenacity

Professor Frans Viljoen, director of the South African Centre for Human Rights, said in a statement earlier this month that Pillay’s nomination was “especially significant to Africa, a continent which is most often under international scrutiny for the human rights compliance of its leaders.”

Judge Pillay, Viljoen said, “not only has the experience, but also embodies humility and human rights. She brings with her a tenacity and resolute spirit.”

In 1967, Pillay became the first woman in what was then Natal province to open a law practice. As senior partner in the firm, she represented many opponents of apartheid, and handled precedent-setting cases establishing the effects of solitary confinement, the right of political prisoners to due process, and the family violence syndrome as a defense.

In 1973, Pillay made a successful application against commanding officer of the prison on Robben Island, establishing that political prisoners held on the island had rights and privileges.

“This ruling enabled all Robben Island prisoners, including former President Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers, which previously had been denied them,” Viljoen said. “The application also exposed the appalling conditions actually prevailing on Robben Island at the time”.

In 2003, Pillay was awarded the Human Rights Prize of the US-based Peter Gruber Foundation for her “courageous leadership in advancing women’s human rights” while working on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

According to the Foundation, the tribuanal’s decision defining rape as an institutionalised weapon of war and a crime of genocide “was a breakthrough for the international women’s movement”.

SAinfo reporter and BuaNews