Judge Navie Pillay

Photograph by Val Adamson

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay has a mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights.

Pillay was born into a humble Tamil family during apartheid days and was brought up in the poor neighbourhood of Clairwood in Durban. Despite odds, she became the first non-white woman to start a law practice in Natal in 1968. She defended several anti- apartheid activists and successfully fought for the right of political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers.

In 1995, after the end of apartheid, Mandela nominated Ms. Pillay as the first non-white female judge on the South African High Court. She is the first South African to obtain a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School. Since then, she has been a judge on the International Criminal Court in The Hague, as well as a judge and president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she played a critical role in the Court’s ground breaking jurisprudence on rape as genocide, as well as on issues of freedom of speech and hate propaganda. Navi Pillay is a shining example of how ordinary people in our community, from disadvantaged backgrounds, can go on to make an extraordinary difference on an international scale.

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