New UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Takes Up Her Post
Friday, September 5, 2008 10:46 AM

1 September 2008

GENEVA -- Navi Pillay officially began her four-year term as the top UN human rights official on Monday. Ms. Pillay, who was appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in July by the UN General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Secretary-General, became the fifth High Commissioner for Human Rights since the office was created in 1993. She takes over a growing organization that now has 1,000 staff working in 50 countries with a total annual budget of some US$ 150 million.

Ms. Pillay has spent the past five years as a judge on the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, the first permanent independent court set up to try cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Before being appointed to the ICC, she served eight years with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), including four years as its President. During her tenure, the court made several ground-breaking rulings that have shaped international criminal law.

During her first term, a Rwandan mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, was found guilty of inciting the murder, rape and torture of thousands of Tutsis. In a far-reaching judgement that built on the tragic realities that had emerged during the wars in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, the ICTR also ruled for the first time that rape was a crime against humanity, and amounted to genocide when it was intended to destroy a particular group.

"Rape had always been regarded as one of the spoils of war," Pillay was quoted as saying after the verdict. "Now it is a war crime, no longer a trophy."

Her career as a campaigner for human rights began much earlier in her home country, South Africa, where she first made a name for herself as a front-line, grassroots lawyer who acted as a defense attorney for many anti-apartheid campaigners and trades unionists. In 1967, she became the first woman to start a law practice in Natal Province, South Africa, and from 1967-1995 worked as an Attorney and Conveyancer. During this period she also worked as a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In 1995, after the end of the apartheid system, she became the first black woman to be appointed a judge on the South African High Court.

Ms. Pillay, who was born in South Africa in 1941, has been very active in supporting women's rights throughout her career, and was one of the co-founders of the international NGO Equality Now, which campaigns for women's rights. She has also been involved with a number of other organizations working on issues relating to children, detainees, victims of torture, and of domestic violence as well as a range of other economic, social and cultural rights.

Published in: New UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Takes up Her Post, Press Release, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1 September 2008.