I shouldn’t be making promises,” says Navanethem Pillay, the newly appointed UN Human Rights Commissioner, already watching her words. “It’s a wide portfolio. I need to read reports, consult experts and find out what has worked in the past.”
With a portfolio that requires dealing with questions of human rights on a daily basis, monitoring the implementation of related laws and holding errant governments accountable, there are reasons to be cautious.
But not when it’s Pillay, for whom courage, independence and breaking the mould is second nature. After all, the Indian-origin lawmaker was the first woman to open her law practice in South Africa’s Natal province, and then, the first non-white female to serve as a High Court judge just after apartheid ended. Born in a humble household — her father was a bus-driver and her mother had no formal education — she has battled enough prejudices and adversity to rise from the ranks.
It was Pillay’s landmark judgment in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the late 90s — establishing rape as a crime of genocide, a war crime —that effectively changed the way sexual violence is viewed by international and regional bodies.
So what makes her appointment significant is not only her experience as a judge, but also as a human rights activist on the front lines, says Jessica Neuwirth, President of Equality Now, an NGO co-founded by Pillay. As an activist, the 67-year-old has battled apartheid for close to three decades, fighting extensively for the rights of political prisoners in South Africa, including Nelson Mandela, so much so that she was denied a passport for many years. “She has seen torture, killing and genocide up close. She also brings a strong commitment to women's rights and understanding that these are human rights,” says Neuwirth.
With such a reputation, expectations are high and Pillay seems conscious of that. “My past experience of having known how it feels to be treated as a second-class citizen does equip me with the knowledge of how important human rights are. It is mainly women who suffer the most, whether it is food shortages, violence, trafficking; they are sexually abused to shame the communities,” she says.
While issues of women’s rights are still a concern — the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa highlighted the women’s plight — Pillay feels certain changes must be acknowledged. “Since the 90s, countries like South Africa, US, UK, have criminalised domestic violence, after much agitation. India took longer, of course. Rape laws have also recently changed in South Africa.”
Ironically, while India still holds on to the archaic law on rape, her appointment could have a positive impact here, feels eminent lawyer Indira Jaisingh. “Her judgments are taught in Indian law schools and the one on rape could be used as a tool in Gujarat riot rape cases. She is committed to the Rome Statute and could bring pressure on India to ratify it,” Jaisingh says.
Known to have lead path-breaking judgements on gender crimes and freedom of speech, Pillay feels changing laws is not enough. “It’s also important to monitor their implementation,” she says, speaking over the telephone from South Africa, where she’s on leave before moving to Geneva next month.
Her phone hasn’t stopped ringing ever since the General Assembly endorsed her nomination on July 28 —against opposition from the Bush administration based on her position on reproductive rights — but Pillay seems unaffected, and rather circumspect on her agenda. She plans to work jointly with governments and civil society groups, get ground reports through field officers and work closely with the Human Rights Council, “where all the complaints come”.
A tough balancing act, indeed, like the one she had to face in the judgement of Rwanda’s “hate media” case where three journalists were brought to book for inciting ethnic violence. “I really cherish freedom of the press and didn’t want to repress it, but finally took the decision based on the evidence.” Experiences as these should now hold her in good stead.