Groundbreaker: Judge recounts highlights of her career

By Katie Vloet
U-M Law

Judge Navi Pillay, the former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, highlighted key moments from her extraordinary career during a speech at Michigan Law and said the failure of countries to protect the human rights of their citizens is among the causes of all wars and conflicts occurring in the world today.

“Human rights violations are among the root causes of every type of instability and conflict, which means that every state has an interest in detecting gaps in its human rights protections,” she said during the Bishop Lecture on September 30. “Despite these early warnings, we have seen many failures by the international community to prevent conflicts and massive human rights violations.”

Pillay was UN High Commissioner on Human Rights from 2008 to 2014. During her tenure, she gathered support for the 2011 passage by the Human Rights Council of the first resolution on LGBT rights. In 2012, her office issued a landmark study on the subject entitled “Born Free and Equal: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in International Human Rights Law.”
She pushed for a UN investigation into alleged abuses of Tamil civilians during the conflict in Sri Lanka and spoke out about human rights violations in numerous countries. When she stepped down, a column in the Independent in England said Pillay “has been the world’s most powerful and effective champion of human rights for the past six years.”

“The last decade, including my term of service as High Commissioner, is characterized by great awareness of human rights—as well as, unfortunately, the greatest number of wars and conflicts raging in different states at any given time,” Pillay said.

She said she is heartened, though, that she was asked to address the UN Security Council about human rights issues in conflict areas more times than all of her predecessors combined.
“These invitations from the Security Council demonstrate heightened recognition that human rights are fundamental to peace, security, and development,” she said.

Pillay grew up in apartheid-era South Africa and overcame profound challenges to become a top judge and global human rights official, in which she said she was “a voice of the voiceless.” Her speech was the fifth William W. Bishop Lectureship in International Law.

Pillay expressed some optimism about international human rights advances, such as the involvement of UN member states in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of human rights records.
“If you had asked me eight years ago whether it is possible that all states would voluntarily subject their human rights record to public scrutiny, even I would have said I can’t see that happening. Well, it’s happening. All 192 states have had their record reviewed by other states and had recommendations referred to them,” she said.

Her life, she said, “is a journey as much personal as political.” The daughter of a bus driver in South Africa, she earned a BA and an LLB from the University of Natal (and later an LLM and SJD from Harvard Law). She said during the Bishop Lecture that no law firm would hire her because they would not allow white employees to take instructions from a person of color. “I had no choice,” she said, but to open her own firm—the first by a non-white woman in the province.

She represented anti-apartheid activists—including her own husband (she intervened and prevented authorities from using illegal interrogation methods against him). Laws at the time “were manifestly bad and unjust,” she said, but she still was able to expose the torture of prisoners on Robben Island and to secure rights for them, including the right to an attorney.
She also founded Advice Desk for the Abused and later the NGO Equality Now.

Her anti-apartheid work led President Nelson Mandela to appoint her as acting judge on the South African High Court in 1995, making her the first non-white woman to serve on the court. He told her that it gave him great joy to appoint her to the court, Pillay recounted during her speech. Later in 1995, the UN General Assembly elected her to serve as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which prosecuted the leaders of the 1994 genocide. She served eight years, the last four as president.

Among the ICTR’s cases was the groundbreaking Prosecutor v. Akayesu, in which the tribunal found that rape could be an act of genocide. The tribunal also heard important cases on the line between freedom of speech and racial propaganda. In 2003, she was appointed as a judge on the International Criminal Court in the Hague, where she served on the Appeals Chamber until August 2008, when she began her tenure as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

During her visit to U-M, Pillay also spoke with students from the Law School and Women’s Studies. She and Professor Catharine MacKinnon, the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law at Michigan Law and the long-term James Barr Ames Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, spoke to students about issues such as inequality, rape and genocide, the role of judges versus that of prosecutors, and more.

The William W. Bishop Lectureship in International Law was established by the family and friends of Professor Bishop, who taught public international law at Michigan for three decades. Professor Bishop was a 1931 Michigan Law graduate who went on to become an assistant legal adviser at the State Department. After serving as legal adviser to the U.S. delegation to the Council of Foreign Ministers and the Paris Peace Conference in the early post-war years, he joined Michigan’s law faculty in 1948, serving as codirector of International Legal Studies here from 1958 to 1976. He died in 1987.