Interview with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay

Navi Pillay addresses a press conference, Geneva, Switzerland (2 Oct. '08)

9 December 2008 – Navi Pillay took up the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in September, just months before this year’s 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December. She was the first non-white female judge to sit in the High Court of South Africa, and has also served as a judge of the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

UN News Centre: When did you first become personally aware of race and colour?

Navi Pillay: Well, it is a long story. I was sixteen when I wrote an essay which dealt with the role of South African women in educating children on human rights. When the essay was published, my community raised funds in order to send this promising, but impecunious, young woman to university.

I almost didn't make it as a lawyer because, when I entered university during the apartheid regime, everything and everyone was segregated. The registrar actually discouraged me from becoming a lawyer. I was told things like “White secretaries can't take instructions froAllowing discrimination, inequality and intolerance to fester and spiral out of control can have genocidal consequencesm a black person”; or was asked “Who in your family is a lawyer?”

Even after graduation, as a black woman, I had to fight against multiple forms of discrimination and barriers. Finally, a black lawyer agreed to take me on board as an intern – but first he made me promise that I would not become pregnant.

I started a law practice of my own in 1967, not out of choice, but because nobody would employ a black woman lawyer. Then, in the early 1970s, I challenged South Africa's apartheid laws that permitted torture and unlawful methods of interrogation. This resulted in better conditions for many detainees including my late husband and all those imprisoned on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela.

UN News Centre: How has living and working in apartheid era South Africa, as a person of Indian descent, shaped your career in human rights?

Navi Pillay: So I grew up in Durban under a system of apartheid that institutionalized racial discrimination, denying equal rights of citizenship to all those who were not white. I later sat as a judge on the Rwanda Tribunal where I came to know in painful detail, killing by killing, the unimaginable destruction of humanity when ethnic hatred exploded into genocide. I know that the consequences of allowing discrimination, inequality and intolerance to fester and spiral out of control can have genocidal consequences. But South Africa's experience shows with political will and a commitment to act, discrimination, inequality and intolerance can be overcome. We have just witnessed the election of the first African-American President of the United States, a country where racial segregation is as much of a living memory for some as it is for me.

UN News Centre: A few months after assuming office, how do you assess the state of human rights around the world 60 years on from the adoption of the UDHR?

Navi Pillay with Haitian President René Préval on recent visit. (30 Oct. '08)

Navi Pillay: An extensive and growing corpus of international law has fleshed out the Universal Declaration's principles, setting out specific obligations for States in upholding them. These principles have found an echo in the constitutions and laws of more than 90 countries. International, regional and national mechanisms have been put in place to be both the custodians and the monitors of human rights, their promotion and protection. Civil society everywhere vigilantly oversees how laws are interpreted and rights are implemented with growing capacity and influence.

There is no doubt, however, that despite all our advances in law and practice, serious implementation gaps remain in protecting people from fear, injustice and inequality.

Impunity, armed conflict and authoritarian rule have not been defeated. Regrettably, human rights are at times sidestepped to promote short-sighted security agendas. And lamentably, a trade-off between justice and peace is often erroneously invoked when societies emerge from conflict and combatants return to their communities.

It also distresses me that violence against women is still a daily occurrence in too many countries. The UN Security Council and international tribunals have clearly established that rape and other forms of sexual violence can amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity or may be regarded as constitutive acts with respect to genocide. Perpetrators should be brought to justice if cycles of violence and brutal retribution are to be halted.

UN News Centre: Next year's anti-racism conference in Geneva will review progress made worldwide since the 2001 Durban Conference. What impact can such meetings have on combating racism?

Navi Pillay: The Durban review conference is a timely opportunity to reaffirm the principles of non-discrimination and to build on the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. It is important for States to revisit these commitments and ensure that implementation gaps are closed. When the international review conference meets in April, States will have an opportunity to demonstrate their determination to fight intolerance by moving the anti-racism agenda forward. The conference will evaluate the implementation of commitments governments made seven years ago in Durban to eradicate racial hatred and discrimination. It is imperative that all States participate and contribute to this crucial process in order to consolidate and improve the common ground on fundamental human rights issues we all agree on.

UN News Centre: Some States have decided against attending the conference. What is your view of these withdrawals?

Navi Pillay: Regrettably, last January Canada announced its intention to withdraw from the Durban review conference. And last month, so did Israel.

Behind these decisions stands the controversy that tainted the 2001 Durban Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance and that was caused by the anti-Semitic behavior of some non-governmental organizations at the sidelines of the conference. Yet, what often gets overlooked, is that the document that emerged from the conference itself, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), transcended divisive and intolerant approaches.

The DDPA offers a comprehensive global framework for the adoption of more effective anti-discrimination laws and policies. It highlights discrimination against minorities, migrants, and indigenous people, and it empowers civil society to demand accountability for actions committed or omitted by strengthening victims' grounds for recourse.

The DDPA clearly states that: “The Holocaust must never be forgotten.” It calls for an end to violence in the Middle East and recognizes Israel's right to security. It urges Israelis and Palestinians to resume the peace process and expresses deep concern about the increase in anti-Semitism around the world, as well as alarm over mounting prejudice related to religious beliefs, including Islamophobia.

UN News Centre: Does the withdrawal of Canada and Israel weaken the conference and the DDPA?

Navi Pillay: If all States are not engaged in the process, the objective of acting decisively on racism and discrimination may remain elusive. Thus, the concerns expressed by Canada and Israel that the review conference will become a platform for denigrating Israel must be addressed. Seven years ago, despite the hatred and hostility that took place on the conference periphery, States transcended this divisiveness in the conference outcome document by reaching a broad agreement on the necessary measures to combat racism and intolerance. They must achieve that commonality of purpose again through active engagement rather than withdrawal.

We owe a frank debate and concrete action to the victims of discrimination, intolerance and racism. We can avoid or overcome friction by focusing on how to give new momentum to the struggle against these unconscionable practices. States have a responsibility to show leadership against racial discrimination and intolerance. What message does a State boycott send to those who are suffering from racism? What message does it send to those who perpetuate racism? This struggle concerns all of us in our increasingly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies where the challenges posed by bigotry and discrimination fuel hatred and exacerbate conflict.

UN News Centre: You have had a stellar career practicing human rights law at the national and international levels. What do you see as the principal challenges in your capacity as the High Commissioner, someone who is arguably the torchbearer of human rights on the global stage?

Navi Pillay: I think that there are many challenges. Our problem is that although all states have, at least to some extent, adopted the rhetoric, they have not always made the effort to make their commitment to human rights a reality. So there are gaps in the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and one of the main challenges I face, like my predecessors, is to get the international community to take human rights seriously. When I leave this job, I would like to be able to say that I've made a real difference in some people's lives, because the organization I head has functioned to its full potential.