Why you should care

From apartheid-era South Africa to the hallowed halls of the Hague, Navi Pillay is testing the bounds of human rights. 

The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is the world’s ultimate moral arbiter. From her base in Geneva, she weighs in on human-rights abuses both heinous and niggling, from atrocities in Syria to restraints on protest in Canada, and swoops into various jurisdictions to lecture the leaders who make or let them happen. Pillay’s judgments can enrage the wicked and make ugly people wince. The winds of justice are always at her back.

It’s never enough. A BBC call-in show last year demonstrated as much.

One Pakistani asked Pillay: “There are a lot of innocent people in Guantanamo and Bagram right now who have been there for years — have you done anything to help them?”

It is one thing to declare an injustice, but it’s quite another to make it stop.

Another, a Tibetan refugee in Nepal, said: “When we see the U.N.’s inability and reluctance when dealing with the Chinese government, we are left with this sick feeling of helplessness and disgust. Will the U.N. ever do anything against nations like China for their human rights record? Why is there this inability and reluctance?”

Pillay’s eyes widened behind her grandmotherly spectacles, and her face, framed by an inky black bob, evinced concern. She noted that she and her office, the beating heart of the U.N.’s human rights mandate, had repeatedly condemned such abuses. But in the final analysis, abuses by powerful countries require political solutions, not judicial ones.

And that’s the dilemma that has characterized international human rights since the start of Pillay’s career in it: It is one thing to declare an injustice, but it’s quite another to make it stop.

It is a strange office, combining ultimate moral authority with an utter lack of enforcement power.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is a strange office, combining ultimate moral authority with an utter lack of enforcement power. And it’s a long way from the hands-on, in-the-prisons and on-the-streets strategic lawyering that Pillay, 71, grew up doing in apartheid-era South Africa.

The practice of international human rights came into being right around when Pillay did. She was born in 1941 in Durban to parents of Indian Tamil descent.* Her father drove a bus. Discrimination against nonwhites, including so-called ”coloreds,” was entrenched. Her family, like others of South Asian descent, were not allowed to visit certain parks or beaches, and as a young child, Pillay says, she wished she were white.

She was a star pupil, though, and her parents supported her desire to go to university instead of getting married. “They were doing something very revolutionary among their circle,” Pillay told an interviewer. When their friends thought it unwise, “Very meekly they would say, ‘My daughters want to continue with their school,’ and that all their children were equal.”

The South Asians in Durban rallied to raise her law-school tuition. She made it through the University of Natal only to find no opportunity to do an articleship, the equivalent of a mandatory apprenticeship. The question she faced from potential employers dripped with the era’s casual racism: How, they asked her, could you give orders to a white secretary?

Her parents asked angrily: ’Do you think that you are now equal to the Europeans?

Pillay eventually went to work for an ANC lawyer who had been banned from traveling for his political activities. She later opened her own shop, though under apartheid rule, she wasn’t allowed to enter a judge’s chambers.

Within five years, her practice had turned political, much to her parents’ horror. While testifying before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Pillay recalled her parents asking angrily: “Do you think that you are now equal to the Europeans? Is that what you have the presumption to assert?” Pillay attributed their anger to “the fears that controlled them.”

Navi Pillay in magistrate blue robe looking away from camera

Source Judith Dekker/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

She was already too far gone down the political road by then, anyway, having married an antiapartheid activist and lawyer named Gaby Pillay.

They made a prescient pair. In those years, South African political prisoners had no standing before courts. Gaby, suspecting he might one day be detained, gave his wife power of attorney. When he was indeed detained in 1971, along with a slew of other prominent activists, Navi could sue on his behalf.

So she did. Pillay became one of the few lawyers allowed on Robben Island, and she helped to expose prisoners’ brutal conditions and the use of torture against them. In 1973, she won the prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, the right to lawyers — as well as the right to smoke.

One Saturday morning more than two decades later, Pillay’s phone rang. It was President Mandela. She thought it was a prank call. But he was calling to ask her to serve on South Africa’s High Court. She would be the first nonwhite woman to do so. Later, Pillay became a judge for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she helped define rape as a human rights crime.

Pillay’s personal life has not been as successful as her public one. She and her husband tried for years to conceive; Pillay believes the stress of her job prevented it. They eventually adopted two girls. In later years, she and Gaby divorced. The trauma of his prison sentence, including solitary confinement, had led to alcoholism.

After the divorce, Pillay moved to the Hague to serve on the International Criminal Court. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed her High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2008, and she has been there since, issuing her statements and irking bad men around the world

Pillay’s advocacy at least provides some psychological comfort to its victims — and, for the rest of us, a sense that there does exist a moral order.

Which is not to say that Pillay’s advocacy is futile. Even if it doesn’t yield immediate results, her consistent flagging of injustice and atrocity at least provides some psychological comfort to its victims — and, for the rest of us, a sense that there does exist a moral order.

Pillay’s advocacy in Syria is a case in point. Her statements have repeatedly reminded us of the war’s horror and its massive human toll. They’ve also called out the government, the rebels and those who support them, while demanding a political solution to end it.

It’s said, though, that in a secret dossier somewhere in her office, Pillay is building a list of war-crime suspects to try once the fighting ends.

Now that’s more like it.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the background of Pillay’s parents.

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