Newsmaker: Navi Pillay

The outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who completes her six years in office at the end of this month, has been as busy as ever this week, faced with unfolding potential war crimes in Gaza and Ukraine.

As Navi Pillay ends a turbulent stint as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, she may well reflect on childhood lessons that taught her much about injustice and probably gave her the thick skin that she needed for the job.

A South African of Indian Tamil origin, Pillay grew up in poverty during the earliest years of the ugly system of apartheid. Her father was a poorly paid bus driver.

At the age of 6, she was sent by her mother, seemingly at her father’s request, to hand him his pitiful month’s wages. It was a trap set by the man who worked with him as conductor. He promptly accosted her and stole the money. “My mother beat me up for that,” Pillay recalled decades later in a revealing interview with Voices of Resistance, a project based in her native Natal province. “I don’t know why the victim gets beaten.”

Even though the thief was tried and jailed, the money was not returned, which added a gnawing feeling of culpability to the resentment at having been unfairly punished. “I felt so guilty as a child that I had caused the loss to my parents,” she said.

It was, perhaps, no more than the first tough challenge that Pillay would face in an eventful but outstandingly successful life. Even now, as she approaches her 73rd birthday, a succession of conflicts and crises, most recently the shooting down of a passenger jet over Ukraine and the explosion of Israeli-Palestinian violence, ensures a dramatic finale to her work at the Geneva-based office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

There have been few moments in her term of office, an initial four-year period that was extended to six, when her close attention and analysis have not been required. One aide said that media coverage of the commission’s work has tripled while she has been in charge, generated by Pillay’s own dynamism as much as global turmoil.

When the Pillay era closes with her departure on August 31, another fascinating and potentially challenging one begins. Her successor is Jordan’s Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein, 50, who is a vastly experienced diplomat and the first Arab and or Muslim to hold the position.

Navanethem Pillay was born in Durban in 1941. Austere family circumstances made for an unpromising start in life; even her teachers discouraged ambition. “You can only become a lawyer if your father is very well-to-do or if there are lawyers in your family,” she remembered being told.

But members of the Indian district in which she grew up raised enough money to see her through college. She graduated in law at the University of Natal and later added to her qualifications in studies at the Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As the young Pillay became more aware of political struggles, embracing the causes of gender equality as well as defeating apartheid, she met further disapproval, this time from her more deferential mother and father. “I recall once my parents saying to me very angrily: ‘Do you think now that you are equal to the Europeans? Is that what you have the presumption to assert?’”

But attempts to rein in her passion, lively imagination and desire to make something of her life were doomed to failure.

Embittered by that beating for no greater crime than being robbed, Pillay had then been wide-eyed with curiosity as she watched how justice was dispensed when the thief was prosecuted. And it was to the same Durban courtroom that she was to return years later, as a judge. She had already overcome three obstacles – “I was a woman, I was black and I was poor” – to become the first non-white female to open her own law practice in Natal province.

In a formidable legal career, she also made history as her country’s first non-white female high-court judge.

But soon after commencing that role in 1995, she was appointed, on Nelson Mandela’s recommendation, to sit on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, judging those accused of genocide in the African country. Estimates of the victims of that campaign of mass slaughter in 1994 vary from 500,000 to 900,000.

At Harvard, where Pillay was the first South African to become a doctor of juridical science, there’s reflected pride at her part in establishing that rape amounts to a crime against humanity.

The elite law school’s website records her comment after that judgement: “Rape had always been regarded as one of the spoils of war. Now it is a war crime, no longer a trophy.”

Pillay went on to sit as the tribunal’s president for four years, until 2003, when she became an appeals judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

A year before her term was due to end, she moved across Europe to Geneva to take on arguably the biggest human-rights job in the world.

With the same unwavering resolve that steered her to the top in law, Pillay found strength to confront abundant criticism and ­controversy.

She has characterised Israel’s bloody military operation in Gaza and the West Bank as a possible war crime, while, at the same time, condemning Hamas for launching “indiscriminate” attacks on Israel.

In strikingly similar language, she said that the missile strike that brought down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine, widely if not yet conclusively blamed on pro-Russian separatist rebels, was also a violation of international law, which “given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime”.

If such examples already seem calculated to provoke hostility in Russia and Israel, Pillay has also defied American sensibilities by arguing that Edward Snowden should not, after all, face prosecution for espionage for revealing, as a contracted United States security specialist, details of massive electronic surveillance. “Those who disclose human-rights violations should be protected; we need them,” Pillay told a news conference in Geneva last month. “I see some of it here in the case of Snowden, because his revelations go to the core of what we are saying about the need for transparency, the need for consultation. We owe a great deal to him for revealing this kind of information.”

But if admirers consider her fearless and even-handed, opponents have seized on her outspoken views, sometimes with ferocity.

In an article for the Jerusalem Post bluntly headlined "Depravity at the UN Human Rights Council", a rival human-rights scholar and activist, Anne Bayefsky, complained that Pillay had spent six years as commissioner "dedicated to the ­demonisation of Israel".

Bayefsky is hardly neutral. She sits on the board of advisers of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a non-profit think tank based in Washington that focuses on US and Israeli national security issues. But strident attacks on anyone in high office seen as anti-Israel find a ready audience, especially in the US.

She accuses Pillay of choreographing successive UN conferences in Durban “that reaffirmed the Israel-is-racist canard”. And she says that the commissioner initiated, and subsequently became the lead spokesperson for, the “slanderous UN Goldstone Report” in 2009, alleging that Israel had deliberately targeted Palestinian civilians “the last time Israel had the audacity to mount a sustained response to the Hamas killing machine in Gaza”.

Less vociferously, in 2012, the government of the Canadian province of Quebec rejected her criticism of legislation to limit student protest. Indignation was felt all the more sharply because Quebec was mentioned in a long speech in which she cited human-rights abuses in countries habitually seen as usual suspects, such as North Korea and Zimbabwe.

In reality, Pillay’s comments were relatively mild: “Moves to restrict freedom of assembly in many parts of the world are alarming. In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly.”

But Jean Charest, then Quebec’s premier, thought it “rich” to hear this from an agency based in Geneva where, he insisted, much tougher protest laws prevailed.

Long before it became irritated by her views on the Snowden affair, the US found Pillay beyond the pale. When her initial four-year term ended, Washington wanted her replaced, chiefly because of her position on Israeli actions in Gaza. The two-year extension was a ­compromise.

But if assorted detractors hope that Pillay will now retreat into a ­serene and silent retirement, they may be disappointed.

The word from her entourage is that she will devote six months to “relax and recover from a gruelling job”. She was married, to Gaby, also a lawyer, but divorced some years ago. He is now dead. They had two daughters – one is in South Africa, the other in New York – and one grandchild.

But she has no plans to become “totally idle”, says a close colleague. It was Pillay, after all, who once said nothing but physical infirmity would cause her to withdraw from what she sees as public service.

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