Navi Pillay

Navanethem Pillay

Pillay at the 26th session of the Human Rights Council
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
In office
1 September 2008  31 August 2014
Nominated by Ban Ki-moon
Deputy Kang Kyung-wha
Flavia Pansieri
Preceded by Louise Arbour
Succeeded by Prince Zeid bin Ra'ad
International Criminal Court judge
In office
11 March 2003  31 August 2008
President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
In office
Preceded by Laity Kama
Succeeded by Erik Møse
International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda judge
In office
Judge of the High Court of South Africa
In office
Nominated by Nelson Mandela
Personal details
Born (1941-09-23) 23 September 1941
Durban, Natal Province, Union of South Africa
Nationality South African
Spouse(s) Gaby Pillay
Residence Geneva, Switzerland
Alma mater
Profession Jurist

Navanethem "Navi" Pillay (born 23 September 1941) is a South African jurist who served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to 2014. A South African of Indian Tamil origin, she was the first non-white woman judge of the High Court of South Africa,[1] and she has also served as a judge of the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Her four-year term as High Commissioner for Human Rights began on 1 September 2008[2] and was extended an additional two years in 2012.[3] She was succeeded in September 2014 by Prince Zeid bin Ra'ad. In April 2015 Pillay became the 16th Commissioner of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty.[4]


Pillay was born in 1941 in a poor neighborhood of Durban, Natal Province, Union of South Africa.[1] She is of Tamil descent and her father was a bus driver.[1] She married Gaby Pillay, a lawyer, in January 1965.[5] She has two daughters.[6]

Supported by her local Indian community with donations,[7][8] she graduated from the University of Natal with a BA in 1963 and an LLB in 1965.[9] She later attended Harvard Law School, obtaining an LLM in 1982 and a Doctor of Juridical Science degree in 1988. Pillay is the first South African to obtain a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School.[10][11]

In 1967, Pillay became the first non-white[10] woman to open her own law practice in Natal Province.[1] She says she had no other alternative: "No law firm would employ me because they said they could not have white employees taking instructions from a coloured person".[7] As a non-white lawyer under the Apartheid regime, she was not allowed to enter a judge's chambers.[7]

During her 28 years as a lawyer in South Africa, she defended anti-Apartheid activists[12] and helped expose the use of torture[12] and poor conditions of political detainees.[7] When her husband was detained under the Apartheid laws, she successfully sued to prevent the police from using unlawful methods of interrogation against him.[5] In 1973, she won the right for political prisoners on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers.[8] She co-founded the Advice Desk for the Abused and ran a shelter for victims of domestic violence. As a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion in South Africa’s Constitution of an equality clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation. In 1992, she co-founded the international women's rights group Equality Now.[13]

In 1995, the year after the African National Congress came to power, Mandela nominated Pillay as the first non-white woman to serve on the High Court of South Africa.[1][7] She noted that "the first time I entered a judge's chambers was when I entered my own."[8]

Her tenure on the High Court was short, however, as she was soon elected by the United Nations General Assembly to serve as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).[7][14] She served for eight years, including four years as president.[14] She was the only female judge for the first four years of the tribunal.[15] Her tenure on the ICTR is best remembered for her role in the landmark trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, which established that rape and sexual assault could constitute acts of genocide.[11][15][16][17] Pillay said in an interview, "From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime. We want to send out a strong signal that rape is no longer a trophy of war."[16]

In February 2003, she was elected to the first ever panel of judges of the International Criminal Court and assigned to the Appeals Division.[14] She was elected to a six-year term, but resigned in August 2008 in order to take up her position with the UN.[18]

High Commissioner for Human Rights

On 24 July 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon nominated Pillay to succeed Louise Arbour as High Commissioner for Human Rights.[19] The United States reportedly resisted her appointment at first, because of her views on abortion and other issues, but eventually dropped its opposition.[12] At a special meeting on 28 July 2008, the UN General Assembly confirmed the nomination by consensus.[2] Her four-year term began on 1 September 2008.[2] Pillay says the High Commissioner is "the voice of the victim everywhere."[7] In 2012, she was given a two-year second term.[20] She also signed a document "BORN FREE AND EQUAL", a document on sexual orientation and gender identity in international human rights law as High Commissioner.[21]

Pillay voiced support for a gay rights resolution in the UNHRC, which was approved in 2011. At a news conference in July 2014, she referred to Edward Snowden as a "human rights defender" and said, "I am raising right here some very important arguments that could be raised on his behalf so that these criminal proceedings are averted."[22] In August 2014, she criticized the international community over its "paralysis" in dealing with the more than 3-year old Syrian Civil War, which by April 30, 2014 had resulted in 191,369 deaths.[23]


In 2003, Pillay received the inaugural Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights.

She has been awarded honorary degrees by

In 2009, Forbes ranked her as the 64th most powerful woman in the world.[28]


Her criticism of the Sri Lankan government, in alleging human rights violations and atrocities committed by them against Tamil civilians at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, has led the government and its supporters to apportion her own Tamil descent as the only reason for her criticism, a claim she strongly denies.[29]

In a speech on 8 June 2012, Pillay blacklisted the provincial government of Quebec in Canada for human rights violations concerning the rights to peaceful protest and free expression for its student protesters, specifically in Canada. The reaction from human rights NGOs was mixed. Quebec official sources criticised Pillay for comparing Quebec with areas known to have worse records.[30]

Her contribution to the 2001 Durban Conference on racism, the Goldstone report, and her steering of the UN Human Rights Council have been criticized as unjust by The Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper.[31]

Pillay's claim that Israel was engaged in the 'apparent targeting of …children playing', on 23 July 2014, a charge previously denied by IDF spokesmen,[32] has been described by Anne Bayefsky as "incitement to hate".[33]

After reviewing heavy US contribution to the Iron Dome program, her call for better defence for Gaza, "No such protection has been provided to Gazans against the shelling"[34] has been described by one critic in the Tablet Magazine as a 'hilariously delicious absurdity'.[35]

On July 25, 2014, the United States Congress published a letter addressed to Pillay by over 100 members in which the signatories asserted that the Human Rights Council "cannot be taken seriously as a human rights organisation" over their handling of the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict.[36]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Reuters (28 July 2008). "FACTBOX-South Africa's Pillay is new human rights chief". Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  2. 1 2 3 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2008). "Navanethem Pillay confirmed as new High Commissioner for Human Rights". Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  3. Navanethem Pillay
  4. "Navanethem Pillay new ICDP Commissioner | International Commission against the Death Penalty". Retrieved 2016-06-12.
  5. 1 2 Interview with Vino Reddy (11 August 2002). Voices of Resistance. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  6. "Navanethem (Navi) Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights". Retrieved 2014-09-15.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Jonah Fisher (28 July 2008). "Profile: New UN human rights chief". BBC News. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  8. 1 2 3 Maggie Farley (26 July 2008). "Human rights commissioner fought a long battle for her own rights". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  9. 1 2 Paul Walters (1 April 2005). Citation for honorary doctorate, Rhodes University Archived 26 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  10. 1 2 Human Sciences Research Council. Group: Democracy and Governance (2000). Women Marching Into the 21st Century: Wathint' Abafazi, Wathint' Imbokodo. Human Sciences Research Council. ISBN 9780796919663.
  11. 1 2 Emily Newburger (Spring 2006). "The bus driver's daughter". Harvard Law Bulletin. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  12. 1 2 3 Louis Charbonneau (28 July 2008). "U.N. assembly confirms S.African as human rights chief". Reuters. Retrieved on 20 April 2009.
  13. "Jordan Diplomat to Replace Navi Pillay in United Nations for Human Rights". NDTV. June 7, 2014. Retrieved 2014-08-07.
  14. 1 2 3 International Criminal Court. "Judge Navanethem Pillay". Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  15. 1 2 Katy Glassborow (26 July 2006). "Apartheid Legacy Haunts ICC Appeals Judge". Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  16. 1 2 Bill Berkeley (11 October 1998). "Judgment Day". Washington Post Sunday Magazine, p. W10.
  17. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1999). Fourth annual report to the United Nations. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  18. International Criminal Court (30 July 2008). Resignation of Judge Navanethem Pillay . Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  19. John Heilprin (24 July 2008). "South Africa lawyer nominated as UN rights chief". The Associated Press. Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  20. "High Commissioner". Retrieved 2014-09-15.
  21. BORN FREE AND EQUAL – Sexual orientation and gender identity in international human rights law (2012)
  22. "UN's Pillay suggests Snowden should not face trial". Reuters. July 16, 2014. Retrieved 2014-08-07.
  23. "UN criticizes 'international paralysis' on Syrian civil war". Big News 22 August 2014. Retrieved 2014-08-22.
  24. Durham University (15 May 2007). "Honorary degrees for remarkable achievement." Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  25. CUNY Newswire (25 May 2006). "CUNY Commencement 2006". Retrieved on 30 July 2008.
  26. "Laudatio KU Leuven". Retrieved on 1 September 2014.
  27. "Mandeville Lecture". Retrieved on 9 June 2016.
  28. "The 100 Most Powerful Women".
  29. IDN Depth news (September 27, 2013). "SRI LANKA: UN'S NAVI PILLAY FAILS TO DISPEL CHARGES OF BIAS". The Nation. Retrieved 2014-08-12.
  30. Stephanie Pedersen (June 24, 2012). "Quebec Under Fire For Human Rights Record". The International. Retrieved 2012-11-01.
  31. Bayefsky, Anne (2014-07-24). "Depravity at the UN Human Rights Council". Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
  32. "An eyewitness account of the attack that killed four children on Gaza beach". Haaretz. 2014-08-16. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  33. "Gaza Strip conflict: Time to face the ugly truth - the UN encourages terrorism". Fox News. 2014-08-08. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  34. "Abbas Seeks Broad Support for War Crimes Charges". ABC News. 2014-07-31. Retrieved 2014-08-09.
  35. "Did the U.N. Call on Israel to Share Iron Dome With Hamas? No, what it actually said was even more outrageous". Tablet. 2014-08-04. Retrieved 2014-08-09.
  36. Israel, Steve; Ted Deutch; Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; Tom Cole (25 July 2014). "Letter to Navi Pillay" (PDF). United States House of Representatives. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
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