Commencement 2015: Biographies - Navanethem "Navi" Pillay

NAVANETHEM “NAVI” PILLAY


Navanethem “Navi” Pillay, jurist and human rights advocate who served as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights is awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 159th Commencement on Sunday, May 17, 2015.
Photo by Kelvin Ma/Tufts University

CITATION

In these troubling times, as this country and your native South Africa both struggle with the terrible consequences of racism, you are a powerful model of principled action against inequality and injustice. Growing up under apartheid, you witnessed poverty and exclusion.

Your family placed a high priority on education, and as a lawyer and later a judge, you took aim courageously and consistently against social injustice and human rights abuses. As president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, you made the landmark ruling that rape and sexual assault constitute acts of genocide.

In 2008, your influence expanded to the world stage when you were appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In that role, you advocated for the full protection of all human rights for all individuals, and especially for those in traditionally underrepresented or marginalized groups—women, minorities, migrants, indigenous people, those with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

For your lifelong campaign against inequality, injustice, and the violence perpetrated against innocents, Tufts is proud to award you an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.


BIOGRAPHY

NAVANETHEM “NAVI” PILLAY grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. As a person of Indian descent, she experienced the full brunt of racism, poverty, and exclusion. Pillay’s parents struggled to keep their eight children housed and fed. Her father was a bus driver who worked odd jobs to make ends meet, and her mother stayed home with the children. Education was a priority.

“While there was strict control over us, my parents believed in the equality of all their children, and educated both boys and girls,” Pillay once told a reporter. “My three sisters and I were fortunate to have enlightened parents who allowed us the opportunity to become judges and school principals.” Pillay combined her education with a drive to fight injustice, dedicating herself to defending human rights abuses in South Africa and around the world.

The pinnacle of her thirty-year career as a lawyer and judge came in 2008, when she was appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a position she held until 2014. It was a job, she said, that demanded she work for no less than the full protection of all human rights for all individuals - civil and political rights, economic and social rights - especially for neglected groups, such as women, minorities, migrants, indigenous people, those with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

As a student in the early 1960s at the University of Natal in South Africa, where she earned both her bachelor’s and law degrees, Pillay found herself in the thick of student discussions about the apartheid regime and protests and boycotts against it. “I was daily mindful of worse forms of exclusion and deprivation suffered by my African colleagues, who were denied the basic right of living in the cities,” she said.

After earning her law degree, Pillay spent the next twenty-eight years defending anti-apartheid activists and exposing the use of torture and the deplorable treatment of prisoners. During this time, she became the first non-white woman to open her own law practice in Natal Province. She also earned an LL.M. in 1982 and a Doctor of Juridical Science degree in 1988 from Harvard Law School.

In January 1995, soon after South Africa’s democratic government was sworn in, Pillay was appointed the first non-white woman to serve as a judge on the High Court in Natal. She received a personal call of congratulations from President Nelson Mandela.

But her tenure there was brief. That same year, she was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to serve as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a post she held for eight years, including four years as its president. In this role, she is best remembered for the ruling that rape and sexual assault constitute acts of genocide. “We want to send out a strong signal that rape is no longer a trophy of war,” Pillay said then.

In 2003, she was elected by the U.N. as a judge on the International Criminal Court, a post she held until 2008, when she was confirmed by the U.N. General Assembly as its High Commissioner for Human Rights. “I hold that human rights cannot be traded for access, justice cannot be subordinated for peace, and people must be at the center of state policies and actions,” Pillay said about her role when she was serving as high commissioner. “Unfortunately, governments fail to protect their own people... I am always conscious that I would be failing in my duty if I were to relax and fail to use the power of my office to keep the spotlight on advancing protection every minute of every day.”

Pillay will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.