A new rights chief for U.N.

Times Staff Writer

The secretary-general will name South African Judge Navanethem Pillay as the next U.N. human rights commissioner as early as today, diplomats and U.N. officials said Thursday.

The daughter of a Tamil bus driver in Durban, she experienced human rights violations firsthand. Pillay earned a law degree at Harvard, but for 28 years during apartheid, she was not allowed to set foot in a judge’s chambers as a lawyer because of her South Asian origins. In 1995 she became the first woman of color to become a judge on the High Court.

Pillay, born in 1941, also served as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda prosecuting crimes related to that nation’s genocide. She presided over landmark cases in international law that established rape as a war crime, convicted a former head of state for atrocities committed during his rule and prosecuted media for inciting genocide. She has served for five years on the International Criminal Court at The Hague.


Pillay may not be as outspoken as the current commissioner, Canadian Judge Louise Arbour, who often shamed governments and leaders that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would not criticize by name.

Arbour took the forefront on issues such as the United Nations’ opposition to capital punishment when Ban said he supported each state’s right to decide whether to use it, and has criticized the United States for skirting international law in its fight against terrorism.

Human Rights advocates wonder whether Pillay will stand up to big powers when they violate human rights, or push her native South Africa on controversial issues, such as human rights violations in neighboring Zimbabwe and elections there that the U.N. has declared illegitimate.

“The challenge for her will be to use the bully pulpit and be a strong advocate for human rights,” said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. “As a judge, she has no experience with that.”

But Pillay’s colleagues say that she has her own firm, discreet way of achieving results, a quality that fits well with Ban’s philosophy of behind-the-scenes persuasion.

“I found her to be a consummate diplomat in fields of law that sometimes challenge diplomacy, but she was always able to deal with grace and strength on very difficult criminal issues in the human rights field,” said David Scheffer, the former U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues who helped create tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and Cambodia.

“I would expect her to defend the rights of the oppressed and always prioritize the fundamental principles of human rights over the power politics,” Scheffer said. “But I think she would know how to use power politics in defense of human rights.”

David Crane, a former prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, called her “a strong leader, well respected and well known around the world as an advocate of human rights.”

Pillay was selected over two others by a committee that gave weight to geographic origin and gender as well as experience, according to diplomats. Another contender, Hina Jilani of Pakistan, a special U.N. envoy on human rights, did not have the backing of her government, which she often challenged.

Also considered was Juan Mendez of Argentina, a special U.N. envoy on genocide.