/ 26 June 2011

Lesson learned: What apartheid taught the UN’s Navi Pillay

Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights chief, remembers a time when only white men could be judges in South Africa.

Today, the woman who has been described as the voice of victims around the world, has gained prominence for her outspoken condemnation of government repression in the Arab world, including Libya and Syria.

And it is her experience in the apartheid era that acts as her moral compass.

“I feel it’s very very very important to have some experience in your life that gives you a better understanding of suffering,” Pillay, the first non-white female judge to sit on the South Africa’s highest court, told Agence France-Presse in an interview at her Geneva headquarters.

“And apartheid gave us all that — a real appreciation of what it is like to be treated as a second-class person, dehumanised, tortured, detained and not given any opportunity.”

Besides speaking out against recent repression of popular protests in the Arab world, Pillay has also travelled widely, with Mexico — at the centre of a fierce drugs war — her next destination.

But while invitations are steadily increasing, countries such as Syria, Burma and North Korea have yet to extend a welcome.

While pointing out that “there is no country in the world that has a perfect record for human rights”, Pillay noted that there is now an inter-governmental body — the UN Human Rights Council — that victims can look to for help.

“It may not be perfect in giving us that remedy that we’re all looking for for justice, but we never had this mechanism before. It’s only five years old,” said Pillay, the daughter of a bus driver.

The former ICC judge believes that recent action taken by the council is a preview of its potential.

“I think what happened in June gives rise to a little optimism because when a situation arose like Libya, the council realised they had the power, they had the will to get together, and without any opposition, pass a resolution on Libya,” she said.

“I think if they are capable of doing that, they are capable of developing that further,” said Pillay, who was born in 1941 in Durban.

National interest
In a rare show of unanimity, the rights council agreed by consensus to extend a probe into alleged violations in Libya. It also appointed a special rapporteur on Iran.

The council had previously come under pressure for reacting too slowly to pressing rights violations, or for focusing only on certain issues, such as abuses in the Gaza Strip.

Pillay acknowledged that flaws remain.

“The weakness of the council obviously is that like all international governmental fora … states do act up their national and political objectives, so they do have a national interest or regional interest and they do get acted out when they decide to address a situation or not,” she said.

“I will continue to urge them to address all situations, irrespective of their relationships with theose countries, they should rather put in the forefront their commitment towards the human rights of victims,” she said.

Nevertheless, the council spells promise, she assessed.

“I would say plus, minus, it’s a young body. It’s very promising if we look at their record for the last month,” said Pillay.

She also has a fairly positive outlook on the situations in countries such as Cuba and Zimbabwe.

Referring to an invitation from Cuba to visit, she said that she “definitely will respond to the invitation because I see that there are initiatives for change”.

Pillay also welcomed Zimbabwe’s recent interest in setting up a human rights institution, even though she is still seeking a visa to visit the country after two years.

Her positive outlook stems from her apartheid experience, she acknowledged.

“The other great thing about my experience is that apartheid has ended so that enables us to be very positive, to know that change can happen,” she said.

Recalling the day when her father, then 90, stood in line to vote for the first time, Pillay recounted how her daughter went up to poll officials to demand that the elderly man be allowed to vote first instead of waiting in the queue.

“So in many ways, people now thought in terms of rights. Including my daughter, who thought in terms of her grandfather,” she said. – AFP