The Centre for Human Rights was on Friday 3 October 2014 privileged to play host to Ms Navi Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She delivered a public lecture on her work as High Commissioner in the Senate Hall of the University of Pretoria.

In her introduction, Prof Cheryl de la Rey, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, spoke of Ms Pillay’s background in the anti-apartheid struggle as the first black woman to qualify as an advocate in the Natal Province, the first woman to open her own legal practice, and the first South African woman to obtain a Doctorate in Law from Harvard University. She described Ms Pillay as a great friend and supporter of the University of Pretoria and especially of the Centre for Human Rights, with which she has been associated for some 20 years. Ms Pillay was awarded the 2001 Women in Law Award by the Centre for Human Rights, and is the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Pretoria (December 2009).

In her address, Ms Pillay spoke passionately of her years as the 5th UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the first woman from the global South to hold this position. She took the audience on a whirlwind tour of the challenges and responsibilities that accompany this office, which she decided for herself would mean being responsible for ‘every human right of every person everywhere in the world’.

She spoke of her engagement with world leaders, both individually and in the collective context of the United Nations, where she addressed the Security Council more times than all her predecssors combined. Among the other achievements of her term in office, she counted the infusion of human rights into the post-2015 development agenda; and the full inclusion of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and caste into the UN’s agenda.

She lamented South Africa’s failure to live up to expectations that it would speak with a consistently principled voice on human rights issues. Too often, she recounted, South Africa found itself on the wrong side of history, defending for example the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of UN member states. She recalled that the erosion of this ‘principle’ was at the heart of the international community’s criticism and the dismantling of apartheid South Africa.

Ms Pillay’s visits to the four corners of the world and her interaction with civil society and individuals, prior to meeting government officials, spoke eloquently of her untiring efforts to shed light on some of the world’s most pressing human rights challenges. Tough but conciliatory, principled but personal, Ms Pillay’s work ruffled many feathers but yielded many positive results. Her only regret, she said, would be that sometimes she thinks she could have done more.

Following the lecture, a lunch was held in honour of Ms Pillay, attended by the following persons:

  • Ms Navi Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
  • Dr Frene Ginwala, former Speaker of Parliament
  • Judge & Mrs Johann Kriegler, former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Human Rights
  • Ambassador Trine Skymoen, Royal Norwegian Embassy
  • Minister Counselor Carine Carey, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the Swiss Federation
  • Prof Cheryl de la Rey, Vice-Chancellor and Principal
  • Prof Erika de Wet, Co-Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa
  • Prof Frans Viljoen, Director, Centre for Human Rights
  • Mr Norman Taku, Assistant Director, Centre for Human Rights
  • Prof Andre Boraine, Dean, Faculty of Law

Over the years, Ms Pillay has taken a special interest in the Centre’s largest educational programmes, namely the Master’s degree in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa, and the African Human Rights Moot Court Competition.

It was during her time at the ICTR that students of the Master’s programme were first able to travel to Arusha and to Kigali on annual field study visits of the Rwanda genocide. Ms Pillay put the Court’s full resources at the disposal of these young human rights lawyers, such is her dedication to the teaching and training of a new generation of young African human rights lawyers. Despite a demanding work and travel schedule, and constrained by protocol and security, Ms Pillay attended to the students personally: in Arusha she welcomed Centre staff and students in her chambers and answered every question put to her; in breach of security protocol, she would then drive herself to the hotel where the group was staying in the evening, and interact further with the young people over dinner. She extended this courtesy to the Centre every year until she left the Court, giving clear instructions each time to staff in Arusha and in Kigali to ensure that it was the learning experience of a lifetime.

During her visit to the University of Pretoria on Friday, she commented on the pride and joy she experienced in meeting these young Africans subsequently, actively working in international human rights organisations and at national human rights institutions.

She has also been an ardent supporter of the African Human Rights Moot Court Competition, which is the largest and most far-reaching human rights educational initiative in Africa. The Moot brings together the top law students from across the continent each year – in a simulation of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights – to argue and debate topical human rights and development issues. In a personal video recorded message to the participants of the 2011 Moot Competition, she said

‘As a daughter of Africa and a jurist, I trust that you will be fully equipped to counter obstacles to progress so that more and more African women, men and children will live in peace and prosperity, free from fear and want’.

During her tenure as High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Centre launched the World Human Rights Moot Court Competition, co-organised with the Southern Africa Regional Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (ROSA). During this event students from different parts of the world argue a hypothetical human rights case as if they are doing so in an international human rights court. The objective is to create a platform for debate, exchange and cooperation between students, academics and experts from various legal backgrounds and human rights systems on cross-cutting human rights issues.

The 6th World Human Rights Moot Court Competition will be hosted at Palais des Nations in Geneva from 8 to 10 December 2014. This will be the first time that this prestigious competition is held in Geneva, with the aim of emphasisng and supporting the role of young people from all parts of the world – inlcuding what is traditinally called the developing world – in human rights a a truly universal project. The distinctly Southern base of the competition will help to emphasise and consolidate the role of the South as an equal participant in the international protection of human rights.

Ms Pillay is a woman whose excellent achievements are surpassed only by her own humility and availability to others. The Centre for Human Rights is grateful for her friendship and support over the years, including spending International Human Rights Day at the University of Pretoria in her first year as High Commissioner in December 2009, when expectations were that she would be in Geneva or New York. In breaking from business as usual, the hallmark of her work, she was able on that occasion to bring the world to the University of Pretoria and to the Centre for Human Rights. The Centre for Human Rights warmly welcomes Ms Pillay back home to South Africa, and holds itself at her disposal as she continues to work for the upliftment of people all over the world.


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