Navi Pillay | india | Hindustan Times
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Navi Pillay

One of the judges of International Criminal Court. Pravasi Bharatiya Samman

india Updated: Mar 14, 2003 16:13 IST

A South African Indian woman is among the judges chosen for the International Criminal Court (ICC) that has just been inaugurated in The Hague.

Navi Pillay, 62, well known internationally for her role as judge president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was one of seven women judges sworn in on the ICC.

But the judge, who has defended innumerable anti-apartheid activists in South Africa for decades, acknowledges that the ICC may not function as effectively as it could without support from countries like the U.S. and India, which are not among the 85 U.N. members that have ratified the establishment of the ICC.

The ICC is the first permanent court empowered to deal with dictators and others who engage in human rights abuses. It has been born at a time of crisis, as the U.S. prepares to almost unilaterally go to war with Iraq.

The U.S. has not only refused to ratify the ICC, but is actively curtailing its impact by concluding bilateral agreements with some countries, granting mutual indemnity from the ICC's jurisdiction.

Pillay acknowledged that such issues would hamper bringing those committing crimes against humanity to trial, but added that at least there was now a mechanism to do this at an international level.

Pillay paid a tribute to the many lawyers and judges in South Africa who developed skills in fighting the apartheid regime.

"That struggle to create a better society (in South Africa) prepared us all for the larger forums across the globe as the world opened up. Unfortunately only one judge from South Africa could get a seat on ICC, and I feel very honoured to have been selected to be part of this group," said Pillay.

She has the full backing of the Law Society of South Africa, where she has friends who worked with her for over three decades.

Among the highlights of her career, Pillay mentioned her success in helping political detainees on Robben Island win the right to basic legal representation denied to them by the minority white apartheid government.

Nelson Mandela was among the prisoners on Robben Island. He eventually became the first democratically elected president of South Africa after spending 27 years in detention.

Pillay also experienced first hand the inhumanity of apartheid when her husband was jailed for five months without trial under the Terrorism Act and held incommunicado.

Pillay was the first non-white woman attorney to be appointed acting judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa. She is also the honorary chair of Equality Now, an international rights group for action on women's rights based in New York.