Navanethem “Navi” Pillay

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008-2014, Navanethem Pillay had a mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights.

Navi Pillay was born in 23 September 1941 into a humble Tamil family during apartheid days and was brought up in the poor neighbourhood of Clairwood in Durban. She went to the University of Natal where she graduated with BA in 1963 and with an LLB in 1965. It was at the University that she joined the Unity Movement. After completing her degree she commenced her legal career by doing her articles in Durban.

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.

In 1988, Navi Pillay was awarded the degree of Doctor of Juridical Science at Harvard Law School. In 1995, after the end of Apartheid, she worked at the Supreme Court of South Africa as a limited-term judge.

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. Pillay is cofounder of the South African Advice Desk for Abused Women.

Pillay, who retired in 2014 after a career in law spanning more than fifty years, still manages to keep herself exceptionally busy, serving as a commissioner on the International Coalition against the Death Penalty, amongst other things.

Click here to read an interview Navi Pillay gave reflecting on her past 50 years as a champion of human rights.

Dr. Pillay has championed many human rights issues with which she herself had direct experience, having grown up under the Apartheid regime in South Africa. She plays an active role in numerous human rights organizations. Among other roles, she is the co-founder of “Equality Now”, an international women’s rights organization.


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