Navi Pillay reflects on 50 years as a defender of human rights

April 14, 2016

I have had quite a few post on Navi Pillay as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/tag/navi-pillay/]  before and after her term [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/navanethem-pillay-finishes-her-term-as-un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights-a-great-lady/]. So when the Toronto Star ( Immigration reporter) did an interview with this remarkable woman on 12 April 2016, I am happy to bring it to your attention. She was the recipient of the 2003 Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights and the 2010 Stockhom Human Rights Award.

“Navi Pillay reflects on 50 years as a champion for human rights”

Navi Pillay, who grew up under apartheid in South Africa, is the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Navi Pillay, who grew up under apartheid in South Africa, is the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

What was it like growing up as a minority within a minority under apartheid? How did that shape your future?

Growing up under apartheid as an Indian South African meant I experienced daily discrimination, deprivation and poverty, like all other persons of colour. Under the law, we grew up segregated, living in poor areas and denied access to parks, beaches, good schools and health care.

I studied law in a potato warehouse, separated from white students at the main university. Once I qualified as a lawyer, the mainly white law firms refused to employ me because they said they will not tolerate their white secretaries taking instruction from a black person.

When President Mandela appointed me as the first black woman to serve as a judge on the High Court, as an acting judge, it was the first time I entered a judge’s chamber. The positive outcome is that, at school and university, we came to see apartheid as a repressive system of injustice and denial of fundamental rights, and became activists for our liberation. We were energized and motivated to speak and act.

The experience taught me to understand the evils of racism, discrimination and hate speech and denial of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, and to care about justice and human rights for all people. Having gone through the experience of a victim, I continue to work towards a better world for all.

Critics often dismiss the United Nations and its agencies as being ineffective in solving global issues. What’s your experience working for the UN?

The UN is an organization of states and is very much influenced by governments, and their national and regional interests. However, over the years, it grew from a club of sovereign states to adopting a framework of norms and standards of human behaviour. This is embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many treaties. And all states were expected to comply with these standards, and protect their population. Under international law, where a state fails or is unable to do so, the responsibility lies with the international community to help.

Unfortunately, many conflicts rage around the world and civilian populations are subject to killings, forced displacement and denial of fundamental rights, such as in Syria, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.

What’s life after the UN like?

I have been working non-stop for more than 50 years as a lawyer, defending anti-apartheid activists in South Africa for 29 years, as a judge on the UN Tribunal for Rwanda, as a judge and president of that court for 8.5 years, as a judge of the appeals division in the International Criminal Court and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

I retired to my home in Durban, where I have since been very occupied in human rights causes, in my home state, Africa and various parts of the world.

I serve as a commissioner on the International Coalition against the Death Penalty and am on a commission of independent experts who will examine all the laws passed by the South African parliament during our 10-year democracy . . .

My experience of change from apartheid to democracy teaches me that change is possible but we have to be constantly watchful that we do not regress. My experience of working at the UN is an abiding impression of the many UN staff who give dedicated and courageous service in the cause of human rights and humanitarian relief.

Source: Navi Pillay reflects on 50 years as a champion for human rights | Toronto Star

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