On Human Rights Day, UN rights chief reminisces, as victim and enforcer

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay

10 December 2008 – On the day that the United Nations celebrated the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the world body’s new top human rights official brought her own special focus to the issue – as victim and nemesis of abuse.

“I was told things like ‘white secretaries can’t take instructions from a black person,’” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who is of Indian descent, told the UN News Centre today, recalling her years growing up in apartheid South Africa when she wanted to become a lawyer in a society stratified by institutionalized racial discrimination.

But she persevered, completed her university law studies and, finally, was taken on as an intern by a black lawyer. She opened a law practice of her own in 1967, not out of choice, but because nobody would employ a black woman lawyer, and by the early 1970s, had challenged laws that permitted torture and unlawful methods of interrogation, leading to better conditions for all those imprisoned on Robben Island, including future president Nelson Mandela.

Over 20 years later, Ms. Pillay was on the other side of the bar, meting out justice to the Hutu extremist perpetrators of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus as President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

“I came to know in painful detail, killing by killing, the unimaginable destruction of humanity when ethnic hatred exploded into genocide,” she said. “I know that the consequences of allowing discrimination, inequality and intolerance to fester and spiral out of control can have genocidal consequences.”

And how does the world appear today after a century marked by so much blood-letting, torture and persecution?

“Impunity, armed conflict and authoritarian rule have not been defeated,” she said. “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.”

But just as she persevered over 40 years ago as a young university student, so will she persevere today as the world’s top human rights official. “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.”

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