Navi Pillay

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Navanethem Pillay
File:Navanethem Pillay.jpg
Born September 23, 1941 (1941-09-23) (age 82)
Durban, Natal Province, Union of South Africa
Residence Geneva, Switzerland
Nationality South African
Ethnicity Tamil
Alma mater
Natal University
Harvard Law School
Predecessor Louise Arbour
Spouse Gaby Pillay

Navanethem "Navi" Pillay (born 23 September 1941) is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A South African of Indian Tamil origin, she was the first non-white woman on the High Court of South Africa,[1] and she has also served as a judge of the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Her four-year term as High Commissioner for Human Rights began on 1 September 2008.[2]


Pillay was born in 1941 in a poor neighborhood of Durban, Natal Province, Union of South Africa.[1] She is of Tamil descent and her father was a bus driver.[1] She married Gaby Pillay, a lawyer, in January 1965.[3]

Supported by her local Indian community with donations,[4][5] she graduated from the University of Natal with a BA in 1963 and an LLB in 1965.[6] She later attended Harvard Law School, obtaining an LLM in 1982 and a Doctor of Juridical Science degree in 1988. Pillay is the first South African to obtain a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School.[7][8]

Legal career

In 1967, Pillay became the first non-white[7] woman to open her own law practice in Natal Province.[1] She says she had no other alternative: "No law firm would employ me because they said they could not have white employees taking instructions from a coloured person".[4] As a non-white lawyer under the Apartheid regime, she was not allowed to enter a judge's chambers.[4]

During her 28 years as a lawyer in South Africa, she defended anti-Apartheid activists[9] and helped expose the use of torture[9] and poor conditions of political detainees.[4] When her husband was detained under the Apartheid laws, she successfully sued to prevent the police from using unlawful methods of interrogation against him.[3] In 1973, she won the right for political prisoners on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers.[5] She co-founded the Advice Desk for the Abused and ran a shelter for victims of domestic violence. As a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion in South Africa’s Constitution of an equality clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation. In 1992, she co-founded the international women's rights group Equality Now.

In 1995, the year after the African National Congress came to power, Mandela nominated Pillay as the first non-white woman to serve on the High Court of South Africa.[1][4] She noted that "the first time I entered a judge's chambers was when I entered my own."[5]

Her tenure on the High Court was short, however, as she was soon elected by the United Nations General Assembly to serve as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).[4][10] She served for eight years, including four years as president.[10] She was the only female judge for the first four years of the tribunal.[11] Her tenure on the ICTR is best remembered for her role in the landmark trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, which established that rape and sexual assault could constitute acts of genocide.[8][11][12][13] Pillay said in an interview, "From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime. We want to send out a strong signal that rape is no longer a trophy of war."[12]

In February 2003, she was elected to the first ever panel of judges of the International Criminal Court and assigned to the Appeals Division.[10] She was elected to a six-year term, but resigned in August 2008 in order to take up her position with the UN.[14]

High Commissioner for Human Rights

On 24 July 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon nominated Pillay to succeed Louise Arbour as High Commissioner for Human Rights.[15] The United States reportedly resisted her appointment at first, because of her views on abortion and other issues, but eventually dropped its opposition.[9] At a special meeting on 28 July 2008, the UN General Assembly confirmed the nomination by consensus.[2] Her four-year term began on 1 September 2008.[2] Pillay says the High Commissioner is "the voice of the victim everywhere."[4] In 2012, she was given a two-year second term.[16] She also signed a document "BORN FREE AND EQUAL", a document on sexual orientation and gender identity in international human rights law" as High Commissioner.[17]


In 2003, Pillay received the inaugural Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights. She has been awarded honourary degrees by Durham University,[18] the City University of New York School of Law,[19] the London School of Economics and Rhodes University.[6] In 2009, Forbes ranked her as the 64th most powerful woman in the world.[20]


Pillay has come into conflict with the Canadian government on their supposed inappropriate treatment of students.[21]

UN member states have repeatedly complained about attempts to turn sexual orientation and gender identity into categories of international law, but Ms. Pillay refuses to back away from making it a priority.[22]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Reuters (28 July 2008). “[FACTBOX-South Africa's Pillay is new human rights chief”. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2008). "Navanethem Pillay confirmed as new High Commissioner for Human Rights". Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Interview with Vino Reddy (11 August 2002). Voices of Resistance. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Jonah Fisher (28 July 2008). "Profile: New UN human rights chief". BBC News. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Maggie Farley (26 July 2008). "Human rights commissioner fought a long battle for her own rights". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Paul Walters (1 April 2005). Citation for honorary doctorate, Rhodes University. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  7. 7.0 7.1 [1]
  8. 8.0 8.1 Emily Newburger (Spring 2006). "The bus driver's daughter". Harvard Law Bulletin. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Louis Charbonneau (28 July 2008). "U.N. assembly confirms S.African as human rights chief". Reuters. Retrieved on 20 April 2009.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 International Criminal Court. "Judge Navanethem Pillay". Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Katy Glassborow (26 July 2006). "Apartheid Legacy Haunts ICC Appeals Judge". Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Bill Berkeley (11 October 1998). "Judgment Day". Washington Post Sunday Magazine, p. W10.
  13. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1999). Fourth annual report to the United Nations. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  14. International Criminal Court (30 July 2008). Resignation of Judge Navanethem Pillay . Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  15. John Heilprin (2008-07-25). "South Africa lawyer nominated as UN rights chief". USA Today. Archived from the original on 2013-04-08. Retrieved 2013-04-08. 
  17. BORN FREE AND EQUAL - Sexual orientation and gender identity in internattional human rights law (2012)
  18. Durham University (15 May 2007). "Honorary degrees for remarkable achievement." Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  19. CUNY Newswire (25 May 2006). "CUNY Commencement 2006". Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  20. "The 100 Most Powerful Women". 
  21. Stephanie Pedersen (June 24, 2012). "Canada Under Fire For Human Rights Record". The International. Retrieved November 1, 2012. 
  22. Stefano Gennarini (October 18, 2012). "High Commissioner Continues Push for LGBT Rights Despite Setbacks". Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Retrieved November 1, 2012.