About Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights

Navi Pillay is the UN’s high commissioner for human rights. A South African of Indian origin, she was formerly president of the Rwanda Tribunal as well as a judge on the International Criminal Court

Navi Pillay took up her job as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 1 September 2008. She took up the post on 1 September 2008. Her mandate has been renewed for two years beginning on 1 September 2012. As the principal human rights official of the United Nations, she has a unique mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights.

Before becoming High Commissioner, Ms. Pillay was a judge on the International Criminal Court in The Hague where she served for five years. From 1995 until 2003 she was a judge, and for the last 4 years President, of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda where she played a critical role in the Court’s groundbreaking jurisprudence on rape as genocide, as well as on issues of freedom of speech and hate propaganda.

Ms. Pillay, a South African national, was the first woman to start a law practice in her home province of Natal in 1967. Over the next few years, she acted as a defense attorney for anti-apartheid activists, exposing torture, and helping establish key rights for prisoners on Robben Island. In 1995, after the end of apartheid, Ms. Pillay was appointed a judge on the South African High Court.

In South Africa, as a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion of an equality clause in the country’s Constitution that prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, 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.

Ms. Pillay received a BA and a LLB from Natal University South Africa. She also holds a Master of Law and a Doctorate of Juridical Science from Harvard University. She was born in 1941, and has two daughters.

Here are some key facts about Pillay:-

  • Pillay, born in a poor Indian neighbourhood of Durban, in 1941, is a lawyer from South Africa’s ethnic Tamil minority.
  • The daughter of a bus driver, she became a lawyer and represented many opponents of the apartheid regime.
  • U.N. diplomats and officials said the United States initially resisted the idea of appointing her due to concerns about her views on abortion among other issues but eventually agreed to drop its opposition.
  • Pillay studied at Natal University and Harvard. She opened her law practice in 1967, the first woman to do so in Natal Province.
  • In 1995 she was appointed acting judge of the High Court of South Africa by the government of Nelson Mandela, the first non-white woman and first attorney to serve on the Bench.
  • Pillay was elected by the United Nations to be a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served for eight years, including four years as president.
  • In February 2003, Pillay was elected as one of the 18 Judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague and served on its Appeals Chamber.

Sources: Reuters/ICC

Interview with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay



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Last updated 10 July 2012

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