Apartheid South Africa prepped me for role of UNHCR: Pillay

July 30th, 2008 - 5:04 pm ICT by IANS  

Johannesburg, July 30 (DPA) Newly-appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) Naventhem Pillay said Wednesday living under apartheid in her native South Africa had given her a first-hand taste of human rights abuses. Pillay, 67, will take over the post of commissioner Sep 1 for a four-year term, replacing Louise Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice.

The Durban-born International Criminal Court (ICC) judge was nominated by UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon to the post last week. Her nomination was approved Monday by UN members at a General Assembly session in New York.

“I think I come with a real understanding of what it’s like to have your human rights violated and to have it violated for a very long time without any justice in sight, and the apartheid struggle taught that,” Pillay said Wednesday in an interview with UN Radio.

Pillay, a member of South Africa’s Tamil community that was among the groups victimised by the white supremacist apartheid regime, began her career defending opponents of the system.

She later went on to serve as president of the UN tribunal for the genocide committed in Rwanda in 1994 and, from there, as a judge on the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.

In the interview, Pillay emphasised the progress made in enshrining human rights globally, pointing to the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council as an example of the seriousness with which countries now viewed rights issues.

“My experience as an international judge is where political leadership has been brought to account for complicity in some very grave international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

“I was on the panel of judges that sentenced the prime minister of Rwanda to life imprisonment for the offence of genocide,” she said.

Pillay said the establishment over the past 15 years of international criminal tribunals, including the ICC, sent “a strong signal that impunity will be ended and that anyone, whether a head of state or a militia leader, will be held accountable and punished.”

But she also recognised that her new role would required a more diplomatic approach than that of a judge.

“The criminal trials have the power to punish, the high commissioner has to find various approaches of persuasion, of strong talk, or to develop civil society organisations to meet this source of the violations.”

The top UN human rights post is tasked with promoting and protecting human rights worldwide.

Some observers have questioned whether Pillay will be as forceful as Arbour in tackling authoritarian regimes, including those on her continent of birth.

Ban said he expected her to uphold the independence of her office.

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