New UN human rights chief speaks of personal understanding of discrimination

Navi Pillay

29 July 2008 – The newly appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says she comes to her work with a personal understanding of human rights violations, based on her experience of living in South Africa during the apartheid regime when non-whites such as herself suffered from institutionalized discrimination.

“I think I come with a real understanding of what it’s like to have your human rights violated and to have it violated for a very long time without any justice in sight, and the apartheid struggle taught that,” Navanethem Pillay said today in an interview with UN Radio.

Ms. Pillay, who is due to take up her post in Geneva on 1 September, said that leadership in her home country had been critical in bringing about dramatic change for the better. She went on to cite the establishment of the Human Rights Council, where she said Member States now subscribe to the notion of accountability, monitoring and peer reviews, as an example of dramatic change that had taken place globally in the human rights field. Noting that her predecessor Louise Arbour had established human rights offices in 50 countries, Ms. Pillay said she wanted to take that work forward.

“I see these as progressive trends which would advance the work of the High Commissioner in protecting human rights everywhere.”

She said that nations now took human rights with the seriousness that they deserved, drawing on her experience of serving as a Judge on the International Criminal Court (ICC) since 2003, and before that as both Judge and President on the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which she joined in 1995.

“My experience as an international judge is where political leadership has been brought to account for complicity in some very grave international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. I was on the panel of judges that sentenced the Prime Minister of Rwanda to life imprisonment for the offense of genocide,” she noted.

“I subscribe to this new system of international criminal justice system which we have only very recently, for the past fifteen years, as a strong signal that impunity will be ended and that anyone, whether a head of state or a militia leader, will be held accountable and punished.”

The High Commissioner acknowledged that she would have to operate in a different manner in her new post from her previous work for criminal tribunals, even though she said there were close links between the two activities.

“The criminal trials have the power to punish, the High Commissioner has to find various approaches of persuasion, of strong talk, or to develop civil society organizations to meet this source of the violations,” she said.


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