Biography of Navanethem Pillay

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Indian Judge Navanethem Pillay Biography

Navanethem Pillay ( born 1941; also called Navi Pillay) is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A South African, she was the first non-white woman on the High Court of South Africa, and she has also served as a judge of the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Navanethem Pillay four-year term as High Commissioner for Human Rights began on 1 September 2008.

Navanethem Pillay Background

Pillay was born in 1941 in a poor neighbourhood of Durban, South Africa. She is of Indian Tamil descent and her father was a bus driver. She married Gaby Pillay, a lawyer, in January 1965.

Supported by her local Indian community with donations, she graduated from the University of Natal with a BA in 1963 and an LLB in 1965. She later attended Harvard Law School, obtaining an LLM in 1982 and a Doctor of Juridical Science degree in 1988.

Navanethem Pillay Legal career

In 1967, Pillay became the first woman to open her own law practice in Natal Province. She says she had no other alternative: “No law firm would employ me because they said they could not have white employees taking instructions from a coloured person”.

General Studies Question Bank CDAs a non-white lawyer under the Apartheid regime, she was not allowed to enter a judge’s chambers. During her 28 years as a lawyer in South Africa, she defended anti-Apartheid activists and helped expose the use of torture and poor conditions of political detainees.

When her husband was detained under the Apartheid laws, she successfully sued to prevent the police from using unlawful methods of interrogation against him. In 1973, she won the right for political prisoners on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers.

Navanethem Pillay co-founded the Advice Desk for the Abused and ran a shelter for victims of domestic violence. As a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion in South Africa’s Constitution of an equality clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation. In 1992, she co-founded the international women’s rights group Equality Now.

In 1995, the year after the African National Congress came to power, Mandela nominated Pillay as the first non-white woman to serve on the High Court of South Africa. She noted that “the first time I entered a judge’s chambers was when I entered my own.”

Navanethem Pillay  tenure on the High Court was short, however, as she was soon elected by the United Nations General Assembly to serve as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). She served for eight years, including four years as president. She was the only female judge for the first four years of the tribunal.

Navanethem Pillay tenure on the ICTR is best remembered for her role in the landmark trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, which established that rape and sexual assault could constitute acts of genocide. Pillay said in an interview, “From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime. We want to send out a strong signal that rape is no longer a trophy of war.”

In February 2003, she was elected to the first ever panel of judges of the International Criminal Court and assigned to the Appeals Division. She was elected to a six-year term, but resigned in August 2008 in order to take up her position with the UN.

High Commissioner for Human Rights

On 24 July 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon nominated Pillay to succeed Louise Arbour as High Commissioner for Human Rights. The United States reportedly resisted her appointment at first, because of her views on abortion and other issues, but eventually dropped its opposition.

At a special meeting on 28 July 2008, the UN General Assembly confirmed the nomination by consensus. Her four-year term began on 1 September 2008. Pillay says the High Commissioner is “the voice of the victim everywhere”.
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Sri Lankan Civil War

In May 2009, following the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Pillay called for an investigation into alleged violations of human rights by both sides. In June 2009, Sri Lankan Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe expressed concerns that Pillay’s statements were making it difficult for Sri Lanka to engage in dialogue with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Nobel Peace Prize 2010 Ceremony

Pillay has been criticised for saying she will not attend the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in December 2010.  The award will be given to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. China has called on nations and various inter-governmental bodies to boycott the ceremony. Pillay’s office rejected accusations that she was responding to pressure from China and insisted she could not attend the award ceremony because of a clash with another event for Human Rights Day. Pillay has called for Mr Liu to be released “as soon as possible”.

Navanethem Pillay Awards

In 2003, Pillay received the inaugural Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights. She has been awarded honorary degrees by Durham University, the City University of New York School of Law, the London School of Economics, and Rhodes University. In 2009, Forbes ranked her as the 64th most powerful woman in the world.