“the priviledge of education also carries responsibilities: first and foremost the responsibility to work so that others can be educated; secondly to contribute to the quality of one’s education through intellectual debate and dialogue.”
Navi Pillay 2010
Dr Navi Pillay is a distinguished expert on international criminal law and human rights. Dr Pillay grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. Of Indian descent, she experienced the full brunt of racism, poverty, and exclusion. In her youth she became determined to fight injustice and dedicated herself to defending human rights abuses in South Africa and around the world.
The pinnacle of her thirty-year career as a lawyer and judge came in 2008, when she was appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a position she held until 2014. It was a job, she said, that demanded she work for no less than the full protection of all human rights for all individuals – civil and political rights, economic and social rights – especially for neglected groups, such as women, minorities, migrants, indigenous people, those with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
As a student in the early 1960s at the University of Natal in South Africa, where she earned both her bachelor’s and law degrees, Pillay found herself in the thick of student discussions about the apartheid regime and protests and boycotts against it. “I was daily mindful of worse forms of exclusion and deprivation suffered by my African colleagues, who were denied the basic right of living in the cities,” she said.
After earning her law degree, Pillay spent the next twenty-eight years defending anti-apartheid activists and exposing the use of torture and the deplorable treatment of prisoners. During this time, she became the first non-white woman to open her own law practice in Natal Province. She also earned an LL.M. in 1982 and a Doctor of Juridical Science degree in 1988 from Harvard Law School.
In January 1995, soon after South Africa’s democratic government was sworn in, Pillay was appointed the first non-white woman to serve as a judge on the High Court in Natal. She received a personal call of congratulations from President Nelson Mandela.
But her tenure there was brief. That same year, she was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to serve as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a post she held for eight years, including four years as its president. In this role, she is best remembered for the ruling that rape and sexual assault constitute acts of genocide. “We want to send out a strong signal that rape is no longer a trophy of war,” Pillay said then.
In 2003, she was elected by the U.N. as a judge on the International Criminal Court, a post she held until 2008, when she was confirmed by the U.N. General Assembly as its High Commissioner for Human Rights. She served as the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations from 2008 to 2014. Pillay built a legacy at the UN for addressing discrimination on all grounds, including against previously overlooked groups, at times drawing the ire of developed nations that objected to having their treatment of minorities scrutinized. Moreover, she emphasized the need to focus not just on political and civil rights, but also economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to development.
She is currently still working hard to ensure a better World for all, as a member of International Nuremberg Principles Academy Advisory Council, International Association Against the Death Penalty, International Services for Human Rights, UN Interim Independent Assessment Panel and as the co-sponsor for Donor Direct USA.
In South Africa, before her nomination to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, she was a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion of an equality clause in the country’s Constitution that prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation. She co-founded Equality Now, an international women’s rights organization, and has been involved with other organizations working on issues relating to children, detainees, victims of torture and of domestic violence, and a range of economic, social and cultural rights.
Retirement hasn’t slowed her down as she still contributes to her home country as a member of the Special Reference Group on Migration & Community Integration in KwaZulu Natal, SA – SRG in 2015 aiding the government in addressing the flare of xenophobia and refugee issues. She is currently a member of Africa International Criminal Court Advisory Group, International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights SA – ICESR, WAYOMA Foundation – Africa Group for Justice and Accountability and part of the Key Legislation Assessment Panel SA Parliament – HLP Member.
Between her numerous membership duties, she still manages to enlighten students, professionals, layman and politicians on current Human Rights, Justice and Accountability issues at lectures and functions held worldwide at educational institutions and various venues.