Atrocities outpace human rights

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Outgoing UN rights champion lays bare hostility to peacemakers.

Navi Pillay. (Val Adamson)

South African-born Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, is packing up her office at the end of August after a gruelling six-year term during which she has contributed to the establishment of leading jurisprudence on some of the world’s biggest human rights cases, including the genocide in Rwanda. 

She has shown herself to be a person unafraid of standing up for her principles, including fighting for the abolition of capital punishment and the protection of human rights. 

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Pillay said she is concerned that the nature of conflict and the conditions under which the UNCHR operates are changing rapidly. Civilians are increasingly being drawn into conflicts, with rising reports of sexual violence and abductions, she said, and the United Nations is grappling to provide assistance in an increasingly hostile environment. 

Children, in particular, are under fire: Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia and rebel groups in Mali have recruited child soldiers, while in Syria, 130 boys have been forced to participate in jihad.

The UN flag no longer protects aid workers, journalists and medical teams, who are increasingly at risk in conflict zones, she says. “I would never have thought that was possible, but now we have to work for their protection.” 

In the Central African Republic (CAR), women working for the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) were abducted by soldiers and only freed after much negotiation. As a result, security officers now accompany all field workers from the commission. Pillay personally visited the CAR to assess the situation and says she was shocked by the atrocities she found, including the amputation of limbs and four cases of cannibalism.

“There are well-placed rules of international law, that you should not attack civilians, that you should not use them as targets, that you should not block agents [who are] providing food and medicine, that you should not harm human rights activists [who are] monitoring and reporting on the situation. These factors are much harder to enforce now that we are no longer dealing with conflict involving two well-ordered armies,” she says.

“We have to change this. We have to constantly say: ‘These are the standards, this is international human rights law.’ We have to constantly urge state and non-state actors to respect these conventions.”

Human atrocity and abuses are part of her daily world, but hearing the intimate case details can take its toll. “I cannot handle it when children are abused. When the young Palestinian boy was burnt alive, I couldn’t sleep for two nights. We are deeply moved and very troubled by these cases.” 

The environment she is leaving is not the same one she entered on her first international election in 1995 to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Pillay’s successor, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, who recently stepped down as Jordan’s ambassador to the United Nations, will inherit a difficult portfolio, to say the least.

Where conflict involves non-state actors, such as rebel groups, it is far harder to ensure that leaders respect international law and human rights law, and accountability suffers. “I do welcome the International Criminal Court (ICC). At least we have an institution now that is bringing justice to victims, particularly in Africa. Otherwise victims don’t receive justice or reparation,” she told the M&G, noting that the ICC has jurisdiction over both state and non-state actors.

Law was not an obvious career choice for a Clairwood child in the 1950s. Pillay was one of eight children, whose mother had been denied an education, and whose grandparents were sugarcane cutters. “It would become a family joke. No-one thought that out of the slums could arise a lawyer,” she told the Mail & Guardian. Even a teacher once commented: “Your father must have a lot of money”, on hearing her desire for a university education. She was only able to study further with financial support from her community.

“Even from childhood I always felt if you want something really badly in life, you have to do something about it,” she says. “My entire life demonstrates what happens when you open those doors and give people a chance. Black people and women often have doors closed to them.”

Pillay says she was triply disadvantaged in pursuing law: she was black, she was female and she was poor, meaning she could bring no wealthy clients to the practice. As a law graduate, she had to give an undertaking that she would not fall pregnant in order to be taken on as an articled clerk — but later she couldn’t find a firm willing to employ her as an attorney. “I was told: ‘We can’t have a white secretary taking briefs from a black woman’.” 

So in 1967 she started her own law practice in KwaZulu-Natal and soon began arguing cases on behalf of political detainees, including her own husband and partner in the practice, Gaby Pillay. She handled precedent-setting cases that established the effects of solitary confinement on detainees, confirmed the rights of political prisoners in Robben Island to due process in disciplinary matters, showed the validity of family violence syndrome as a defence and exposed the use of torture.

Later, she was appointed an acting High Court judge and in 1995 she was elected to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), where she later became judge president.
“There was so much bad publicity around that court. People said it’s yet another African institution that’s bound to fail,” she says. She speaks passionately about “the contribution the court made, and continues to make, to international jurisprudence”. It was the first court to define the legal elements of genocide and to declare rape as an act of genocide.

The ICTR was also the first international court to prosecute a head of government when it convicted Jean Kambanda, former Rwandan prime minister, for genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the Geneva Convention. This paved the way for the prosecution of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In 2003 Pillay was elected to the International Criminal Court, where she served as an appeals judge.

Pillay is reluctant to discuss her future plans at present, but she is as passionate as ever about human rights causes, she said. 

Her final remarks to the UN Human Rights Council in June summed up her concerns for the future of the organisation and challenged those remaining to protect its heritage. She said the UNHCR must “continue working to strengthen the rule of law at national and international levels, fight impunity, and boost the international community’s ability to respond decisively to warning signs”. 

She hinted at financial and political constraints, called for established norms to be protected from erosion, and said that “the very careful reporting and analysis that is done by my office, and our calls for investigations into allegations of abuse” were too often greeted with stone-walling and denial.

“It is a friend that is unafraid to speak the truth… I trust that OHCHR will be able to continue in the characteristic spirit of independence, impartiality and non-selectivity that marks every level of its work,” she said.

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