High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay

Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is pictured during the high-level segment of the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

28 August 2014 – As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem (Navi) Pillay has spent the last six years spearheading the Organization’s efforts to protect and promote fundamental human rights for all. As a member of a non-white minority in apartheid South Africa, and as a front-line, grassroots lawyer who acted as a defense attorney for many anti-apartheid activists, Ms. Pillay has direct personal experience of many of the issues she covers.

In 1995, after the end of apartheid, Ms. Pillay was appointed as acting judge on the South African High Court, and in the same year was elected by the UN General Assembly to be a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served a total of eight years, the last four as President. She played a critical role in the Tribunal’s ground-breaking jurisprudence on rape as war crime, as well as on issues of freedom of speech and hate propaganda. Afterwards, she served as a judge on the International Criminal Court in The Hague for five years.

In South Africa, Ms. Pillay contributed to the inclusion of the equality clause in the country’s Constitution that prohibI would say that not a single State can claim to have a perfect human rights record. There are issues of concern in every country in the world.its discrimination on grounds of race, gender, 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.

In a wide-ranging interview with the UN News Centre, Ms. Pillay reflected on her tenure, which comes to a close on 31 August; the work of her office (OHCHR); and some of the challenges facing the international community today.

UN News Centre: Which issue or issues have kept you up at night the most during the past six years?

Navi Pillay: I kind of slept reasonably over five years, and now these conflicts that are raging in about 12 or 13 States with loss of civilian lives, injuries and recruitment of children – these really do keep me awake at night. And what particularly touches me is when children are killed and children are injured. They are totally innocent and caught up in the warfare and conflicts. Nobody can claim that they are combatants. That in particular troubles me.

UN News Centre: What are some of the highlights of your tenure? And is there anything you feel you would have done differently?

Navi Pillay: Well, I would have done much more to help prevent conflicts if I could. I’ve visited many countries, like 50 to 60 countries. There was always some benefit in going personally, speaking to civil society in those countries, speaking to the head of State, head of government and the various ministers, and offering assistance which is really our expertise in addressing human rights violations, in helping to change laws, in training the judiciary and law enforcement officials to adopt a human rights-based approach.

Ms. Pillay and the UN Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, meet with former South Sudan vice-president Riek Machar during a visit to the country in April 2014 to get a first-hand look at the worsening human rights situation, in the wake of mass killings. UN Photo/Isaac Billy

We could do much more on this because we saw the benefits of that kind of work. I am very proud that we’ve addressed all issues, all rights of all persons. We’ve addressed discrimination on all grounds, various grounds that had not been addressed before, such as minorities, migrants, LGBT people, caste-based discrimination and people with albinism.

My office then also addressed both civil and political rights – these are the fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly, the right to protest, the right to be free from torture or disappearances… as well as economic and social rights. This has led us squarely into putting human rights language in the sustainable development goals and in the post-2015 development agenda.

I’m also very pleased that all our efforts have resulted in the Secretary-General’s endorsement of the policy ‘Rights Up Front’ and that means that inside the UN every department, no matter what their respective mandates are, has committed to advancing the protection of human rights. So both internally in the UN and on the ground through, now, 67 presences all over the world, we’re translating the normative standards into reality.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) with Ms. Pillay (left) during the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2014. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

UN News Centre: Would you say that the overall human rights situation has improved or worsened in recent years?

Navi Pillay: Well right now it is difficult to say it’s improved because of the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, South Sudan, Sudan, Central African Republic, Iraq – and these are so shocking – the level of killings, and of course in Gaza, the occupied Palestinian territory. These are conflicts that are surging. It’s difficult to say that there’s been a great deal of improvement.

The High Commissioner visits a UN-run school in Gaza City. UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

But I look at the long-term implications of our work and I look at the other 180 countries that are all really trying to keep to their international obligations to observe all the treaties they’ve signed, such as preventing torture, addressing discrimination against women, addressing discrimination on the basis of race or religion.

Many countries have progressed. So I feel that we have institutions now to address these violations and to help States and civil society to be strengthened. These institutions were not there before. For instance, since Nuremberg we never had an international criminal justice system. After the two ad-hoc tribunals – for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – we now have the world’s first permanent criminal court. Then 20 years ago, because of the push by civil society, the General Assembly established the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In just 20 years, I could see how much has been done, not only by my office, but in our support to the Human Rights Council, which addresses through the universal periodic reporting system the human rights situations of every country in the world. So far, 100 per cent of the countries are participating in this programme. Then we have 52 independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council and they make recommendations, together with the treaty bodies, which preceded these more recent measures. Those are all very, very important mechanism that States work with in order to improve human rights. And they are global endeavours and I’m happy that we have those measures.

TV broadcast journalist Ghida Fakhry Khan (left) and Ms. Pillay at the Human Rights Day event held in Geneva in December 2013. Photo by Violaine Martin

UN News Centre: Have national governments helped advance your mission or obstructed it?

Navi Pillay: I would say that national governments have supported the mandate of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I often remind them, ‘Well you set up this, you supported the establishment of this mandate, so give me the opportunity to raise issues of concern with you’. There may be a few cases of what one can say are obstructions, and that is if they do not allow me into their countries or they don't allow the commissions of inquiry that we service into their countries. It’s important that they do. When we find facts on the ground we bring it to the attention of a government. What we are really doing is alerting them to causes and concerns that may lead to conflict. We are urging them to address them before-hand. So I think it’s unfortunate that I have not been to every country in the world. I would have liked to have done that. A, it was impossible because of the time. But, B, some countries just did not respond to my requests for visits.

UN News Centre: Is there anything in particular you would tell your successor to keep a close eye on? What other advice do you have for him?

Navi Pillay: Well, firstly I would advise my successor [Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan] to realize that a single High Commissioner cannot carry out this huge mandate, but we can only do that with the support of the office as a whole, which is composed of experts, people with great experience and commitment. I truly want to pay tribute to the office as a whole. Many States also compliment them and thank them for going into the field, helping on a day-to-day basis with training workshops, helping to redraw legislations and helping to draw up constitutions. This is solid work which will be of long-term benefit. So, value the office would be one message.

Secondly, that we cannot as an office itself look after or protect and promote the human rights of everyone in this world, unless we work closely with civil society, either the international NGOs and/or the national NGOs. For that, we also need to work with them to strengthen them.

A third factor is to spread the messages and information on human rights and human rights standards. Our messages are now being picked up by millions of people all over the world, particularly on social media. Some of it may just be sound bites but people are understanding what their rights are now. People who are protesting or occupying streets in protests across the cities are now looking for information on their rights so that they could articulate them and get their governments or private institutions such as banks to be more accountable. People want a say in the decision-making of policies that affect them. These would be my messages to my successor, but I think, since I know him very well, that he already knows this.

Ms. Pillay speaking at a press conference in Geneva in December 2013. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

UN News Centre: You grew up in apartheid South Africa. What goes through your mind when you hear about incidents such as the recent shooting of a young black man by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri?

Navi Pillay: As I watch the television footage, you could see white policemen firing upon black protesters, so that recalls South Africa under apartheid. But you know apartheid is a system that is legitimized under the law – that was the apartheid system. That’s why the whole world found that shocking, where racism is institutionalized in the law. That’s not the case in Missouri, or in the United States as a whole.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the practice of apartheid has to be addressed and no one should turn a blind eye to the fact that the most vulnerable, the most at risk of violence and brutality from law enforcement are people of colour. The largest number in detention and prisons in the United States are black people. I would say that the lessons of Missouri now are that the root causes of issues that are keeping black people poor, marginalized and victims of law enforcement’s heavy handedness should be examined and corrected.

UN News Centre: Amid so many crises in the world today, are the human rights violations any worse in one particular crisis over another?

Navi Pillay: I would say that not a single State can claim to have a perfect human rights record. There are issues of concern in every country in the world. Some may be very serious such as Syria, where we’ve now documented that more than 191,000 people have lost their lives – combatants and civilians. A large number of children and women have been killed both in Gaza and in Syria… and a great deal of sexual violence is now being used as a weapon of war in conflict situations. Obviously, there are greater violations in some countries just in terms of the number of people who are suffering.

On the other hand, if a person is being subject to domestic violence in a country, for that person, that is a serious violation. For a migrant or a Roma in Europe, where they are discriminated [against] and not allowed under the law to send their children to the same schools, those are important issues for them. So I don’t grade human rights and think that one is more important than the other. Every country has to address issues of concern, nationally, and also pay attention to issues that affect them globally.

The High Commissioner receives petitions from indigenous authorities at a meeting in Guatemala. Photo: OHCHR/R. Alfaro

UN News Centre: You’ve spoken about the importance of early warning in preventing atrocities. Do you think there were signs of the horrific human rights violations that are being witnessed in Iraq?

Navi Pillay: There were signs, firstly from reports prepared by us, by my office, which are filed and studied in the Human Rights Council, [from] the reports of the mission there, in Iraq. The reports of the Commission of Inquiry into Syria has documented for instance that the IS [Islamic State] jihadists – the ones who fought in Syria and committed a great deal of human rights violations and killings – are the ones who are now active in Iraq. So we’ve tracked this. We’ve tracked the fact that the Sunni populations in the north were being excluded from any kind of decision-making and had complained to us of human rights violations against them. The large number of death sentences that have been carried out in Iraq recently against people for political activities or other activities. These are all matters that we alerted to as factors that would lead to serious conflict.

The Baharka camp, north of Erbil in northern Iraq, is home to thousands of internally displaced people following the takeover of large swathes of the country by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Photo: Emma Beals/IRIN

UN News Centre: With all the human rights conventions that exist, what can be done to ensure that States actually carry out the obligations that they’ve signed onto?

Navi Pillay: Firstly, these are very important conventions and civil society has struggled to get these conventions adopted. There are 10 of them, the most recent being the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. States established these treaty bodies. It’s important that they report the progress they have made in implementing these conventions. There is a huge backlog of reports by States to these treaty bodies. After a 3-4 year process which I initiated at OHCHR, we now have a GA resolution which we call a treaty body strengthening mechanism and we hope through a master calendar to get more States to report to the treaty bodies on how they are implementing these treaties.

I must say that the States who signed up to these treaties do have the political will to do so. Sometimes they complain about being overburdened by reporting. And this is where my office comes in. We’re committed to helping them with capacity and resources to do that. Many States of course have not ratified conventions. An important one for instance is the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families, which is more than 20 years old now but with only about 46 ratifications. Part of my work is to call upon States to ratify these conventions. And for instance, if they sign up to the Convention against Torture, then we urge them to set up a mechanism which will seriously implement and lead to reducing the incidence of torture.

UN News Centre: Despite the setting up of tribunals, such as those for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, grave crimes continue to be committed. Have these tribunals been effective in deterring atrocities and in delivering the justice that was promised?

Navi Pillay: Well the tribunals are fairly new. The importance is that they are there because you have to address the commission of serious crimes, you have to end impunity. There isn’t a State in the world that supports impunity for serious crimes. They accept that principle. This is why you have national justice systems and legal systems to charge suspects who have committed crimes such as murder, assaults and so on. And you can’t claim that all those national courts have now deterred murders and assaults in every part of a country. It’s good to have a national justice system… not just good…the accountability measure is essential.

Similarly, the tribunals in the international system have just started work. I know the ICTY and ICTR are almost more than 20 years old now. When you look at the current conflicts, then of course we have to really seriously question whether they’ve been a deterrent. But we need them and they have brought those most responsible for serious crimes such as crimes against humanity and genocide to trial. So I would give these mechanisms a chance. I would call upon the international community to ensure that they are properly funded. The ICC has many investigations. It’s important that the Prosecutor is given the means to investigate and charge perpetrators for crimes.

Ms. Pillay pays a farewell call to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Photo by Violaine Martinn

UN News Centre: You were the first woman to start a law practice in your home province of Natal in 1967. Can you talk about this experience and how you were able to overcome the various professional and personal challenges that you faced in your career?

Navi Pillay: Well I’d like to say firstly there were thousands like me under apartheid South Africa who never allowed the door to be shut in our face. We always looked for opportunities. Opportunity one is where poor parents educate their children, both boys and girls, because they saw that education opens doors. When I eventually qualified as a lawyer with the two degrees, which I was able to do because my community supported me and provided me with funding to go to university – this is what I mean that everybody made an effort.

When I qualified, I found that I had treble discrimination against me. One was as a black person. White firms would not hire me. They said we can’t have a white secretary taking instructions from a black person. And some lawyers said well we can’t take on a woman, what if you fall pregnant? Then class distinction is, you know, do you come from a rich family? Is your father a businessperson? That’s why I started my own law practice. I had no choice. And then you make it work. Every step of the way, we fought court cases to try and establish our rights. We won some. We lost most of the cases under the terrorism act, because it was such a tyrannical piece of law where the onus was really on the accused person to prove his or her innocence. So it’s winning battles every step of the way that has taught South Africans resilience and to keep going at it, and to celebrate small victories.

UN News Centre: Can you share some of your plans for the future?

Navi Pillay: Well I just worked out that I’ve been working non-stop for 50 years, so why would I want to make any plans to work any longer. I intend to go back home to my city, Durban, South Africa. I will always be a human rights defender and be concerned about human rights violations anywhere in the world. I would add my voice as best as I could but not in any formal capacity.



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