July 21, 2008
Navanethem Pillay LL.M. ’82 S.J.D. ’88 is expected to become the next United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will announce Pillay’s nomination, which requires the approval of the General Assembly, early this week.
Pillay has spent her career advocating for human rights. She became prominent for her role as presiding judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a post she occupied from 1995 until her appointment to the International Criminal Court in 2003. Pillay was also appointed to the South African Supreme Court in 1995, becoming the first woman of color to hold that post.
Born to a poor, minority bus driver in South Africa, Pillay was the first woman of color to open her own law firm in the Natal province. She won victories for prisoners of apartheid, including her husband, and became a champion for women’s rights. Later, she brought a successful action against the officer commanding Robben Island Prison, which enabled political prisoners like Nelson Mandela to have access to lawyers.
If confirmed to become the head of the UN’s human rights organization, Pillay will work with the 47-member Human Rights Council and report directly to the UN secretary general. One of the earliest and most difficult tests for her in her new job will be in Zimbabwe, where South Africa blocked an American-led effort to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe.
Pillay will succeed Louise Arbour, a Canadian prosecutor whose term ended on June 30. Mary Robinson LL.M. ’68, the former president of Ireland, also served as high commissioner, from 1997-2002.
- The bus driver's daughter, Harvard Law Bulletin