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Finally! The UN Gets One Right

Robin Morgan 642

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously confirmed Secretary General BanKi-Moon’s appointment for the post of UN high commissioner for human rights: the distinguished South African jurist Navanethem (“Navi”) Pillay. Women’s rights activists around the world can celebrate.

But let’s digress a moment.

UN appointments are often notoriously based more on political and funding considerations than qualifications. Last spring, DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era), a network of Third World researchers, activists, and policymakers, openly expressed dismay at the choice of a Spaniard to head the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) rather than the Global South woman recommended by the UN selection panel. Sociologist Ines Alberdi, former Madrid assemblywoman and a European Union's Equal Opportunities Unit expert, had admittedly little development experience. The panel had endorsed Gita Sen: gender expert, professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, adjunct lecturer at the Center for Population and Development Studies at Harvard’s School of Public Health, and DAWN co-founder. “The selection committee ranked none of the others appropriate” for this post, noted DAWN, claiming funding concerns and “open political pressure from the government of Spain” affected the decision (Spain was a leading 2006-2007 UNIFEM donor: $11.4 million).

But back to the Good News.

When did you last hear a high-profile human-rights official say: This insidious business of gender-based crimes has never been given the serious attention it deserves?

Or: [W]omen's rights should be brought out of the closet, out of the ghetto?

Or : There is a lack of mainstream recognition of gender-persecution, and so much evidence of widespread abuse?

Finally, a human-rights leader who considers women human.

The most powerful, richly funded, human-rights NGOs are male-led with male-defined priorities, though some have added “women’s sections” that must nevertheless report to male leadership (“Ladies’ Auxiliaries”?). Consequently, feminists have joked that to these guys, “human” means “male” and “rights” means “liberties.” Indeed, the press quoted Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, saying patronizingly that Pillay had an “admirable résumé” but must show “courage to stand up to powerful governments,” adding, “[S]he has no experience with that.” Roth further pontificated that Pillay should be a voice for all victims and human-rights defenders.” Dare I wonder if by “all,” he was expressing anxiety that the minority of humanity—men—might lose sole-focus attention?

Who, then, is Navi Pillay?

She’s one of our own: a grassroots activist who—through intellectual muscle, intrepid courage, and indefatigable work (despite personal peril)—has amassed a stunning collection of “firsts” in her 67 years.

Born of a Tamil family—a non-white minority in apartheid South Africa—Pillay grew up in a poor Indian district of Durban. Her father drove a bus. She was the first woman of color in Natal province to start her own law firm and the first South African to receive Harvard’s most advanced law degree (S.J.D.). Active in the anti-apartheid movement, she went often to Robben Island to work with Nelson Mandela and other prisoners, and for 30 years won legal victories for apartheid's victims—including her husband. (No experience “standing up to powerful governments”?) Women’s needs were equally important to her: co-authoring Violence Against Women—Their Legal Rights and Remedies, co-founding the South African Advice Desk for Abused Women. In 1985, she co-founded the international women's rights group Equality Now with Jessica Neuwirth (a Women’s Media Center board member).

In 1995, Pillay was appointed the first woman of color High Court judge in South Africa—where, for 28 years as a “coloured” lawyer, she wasn’t permitted entry into judges’ chambers. Also in 1995, she was elected to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), then the sole woman.

Her two ICTR terms were historic: groundbreaking international law precedents on rape and war, and on accountability of government leaders. In 1995, Taba mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu was tried for inciting Hutus to rape, torture, and murder thousands of Tutsis; he was the first person convicted of genocide by an international court. In that decision, the tribunal ruled rape a crime against humanity, constituting genocide when aimed to destroy a specific group. This ruling forged a broader definition of rape in international law. Pillay, one of three judges signing the Akayesu judgment, is credited with formulating its arguments.

"Rape had always been regarded as one of the spoils of war," she stated, noting, with characteristic dry wit, "Now it is a war crime, no longer a trophy."

That judgment made visible 200,000 raped Rwandan women, and, through its use as a legal precedent, more than 30,000 raped women and an epidemic of forced impregnation during the former-Yugoslavia war. The principle is now reflected in International Criminal Court (ICC) law, which recognizes a range of sexually violent acts among the gravest international crimes.

Pillay’s other cases on the ICTR bench included convicting former Rwandan prime minister Jean Kambanda—the first time an international criminal tribunal held a government head accountable for atrocities committed during his regime—and the conviction of three Rwandans for “inciting genocide through the use of media,” another first. She also became known for extending personal sensitivity to witnesses who had survived atrocities. In 1999, she was elected the ICTR’s (first woman) president.

In 2003, Pillay joined the Appeals Division of the ICC in The Hague, one of 18 judges from around the world elected to this first permanent court founded to try individuals for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Independent from the UN, the ICC relies on the 100 states agreeing to its jurisdiction—China and the United States have refused. (The Clinton administration supported the Rome conference establishing the court, but the Bush administration termed the court’s independence “a recipe for politicized prosecutions.”)

Now, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay—a wise woman with a warm smile—heads an office of almost 1,000 employees with a budget of nearly $120 million. This steel-spined, soft-spoken, brilliant activist may show the world another “first”: that women actually do have human rights.

More articles by Category: Feminism, International, Violence against women
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Robin Morgan
Co-founder. Women's Media Center, Host & Producer of WMC Live with Robin Morgan, Writer, Activist
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