/ 25 July 2008

Respected SA judge named as UN human rights chief

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon on Thursday formally appointed South African Judge Navanethem Pillay to succeed Louise Arbour as his high commissioner for human rights.

UN spokesperson Michele Montas said the secretary general informed the UN General Assembly of his decision.

Hailing Pillay’s ”outstanding credentials in human rights and justice”, Montas said Ban expects her to ”preserve the independence of her office and maintain effective working relations with the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council”.

”It is now up to the [192-member] General Assembly to approve” the choice of Pillay, who currently serves as an appeals chamber judge on the International Criminal Court (ICC), she said.

Diplomats and UN officials said the Assembly is expected to do so at a meeting slated for next Monday.

”The secretary general is determined to fully support Ms Pillay in carrying out her work, including with increased resources, as approved by the General Assembly,” Montas said in a statement.

Pillay, who has been with the ICC since 2003, was picked from a shortlist that also included prominent Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist Hila Jilani and Argentinian human rights lawyer Juan Mendez, according to diplomats and UN officials.

The highly respected South African jurist, who was born in 1941 and is of Tamil descent, previously served as a judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. In that capacity, she played a key role in landmark decisions defining rape as an institutionalised weapon of war and a crime of genocide.

In 1967, she became the first woman to set up a law practice in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where she provided legal defence for opponents to apartheid, and the first woman of colour to serve in the high court in the country.

She exposed the practice and effects of torture and solitary confinement on detainees held in the custody of the apartheid police and successfully established the rights of prisoners on Robben Island Prison.

The United States-educated Pillay is to take over from Arbour (61), a Canadian jurist, who stepped down at the end of June after completing a four-year mandate.

Montas said Ban ”is grateful for Ms Arbour’s dedicated service to the UN and to human rights” and ”praises her untiring dedication and principled stewardship of the organisation’s human rights programme”.

Arbour announced in March that she would not renew her mandate due to personal reasons, after a period that saw her office released damning reports on countries ranging from the US to Zimbabwe to Sudan. — Sapa-AFP