Lawyer Navi Pillay is set to head up a provincial commission set up by the KZN premier Senzo Mchunu to investigate the recent spate of xenophobic attacks, centered in Durban. But who is Pillay and can she save us from xenophobia? FATIMA MOOSA gives us five reasons why she’s up to the job.
1. Broke the glass ceiling for female lawyers in South Africa
Pillay was the first non-white, female judge in SA and also the first women of colour to open her own law practise in South Africa, which she says she did because she had “no choice”. “No law firm would employ me because they said they could not have white employees taking instructions from a coloured person,” she said.
2. First South African to obtain a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School
Pillay said her time at Harvard made a real difference to her career – in fact it led her to onto the path of defending women. She makes an impact wherever she goes, with her professor from Harvard saying of Pillay’s role at the International Criminal Court: “I think the world is lucky that someone with her talents, wisdom and experience is there as the uncharted becomes known.”
3. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to 2014
Pillay, who served as UN high commissioner for human rights from 2008 to 2014, once said that: “Not a single state can claim to have a perfect human rights record. There are issues of concern in every country in the world.” The Independent’s Peter Popham described her as a “world-class troublemaker” who had left “very large boots to fill”. He also noted that Pillay had briefed the UN Security Council more times than all her predecessors combined and everyone from the Sri Lankan government to Syria, the US, and both sides in the Gaza wars.
4. Served as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)
Pillay was the only female judge on the ICTR for the first four years of the tribunal. She was considered a tough but fair-minded judge and was also praised by many people for her sensitive handling of the victims’ testimony. While on the tribunal Pillay succeeded in getting rape to be qualified as a crime against humanity. “Rape had always been regarded as one of the spoils of war,” Pillay later said. “Now it is a war crime, no longer a trophy.”
5. Co-founded the international women’s rights group Equality Now
Pillay, who has said she wants to be “the champion of human rights in every part of the world”, has always been a vocal advocate for women’s rights. In 1992 she co-founded Equality Now, a group that focuses on rights issues that disproportionately or solely affect women, such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and reproductive rights.
Pillay has an excellent track record and has shown herself able to speak with moral authority on sensitive issues. She is also unafraid to speak out against people in positions of power. Having Pillay at the head of the KZN commission into the recent xenophobic violence is reassuring. One can only hope that her recommendations are taken seriously and implemented swiftly.