UN High Commissioner for Human Rights addresses students

Harriet Burgess

Contributing Writer

International law is by definition a system of law without force, based on the consensual agreements of states. Its utility seems questionable when used by states as a means of furthering political agendas.

In her address to members of the Law Society and the College Historical Society yesterday, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, contested such cynicism.

Pillay’s message to students was that human rights ought to be utilised, that “suffering has no better deterrent than human rights.” For a non-white woman in apartheid South Africa, they were the only means of “seeking support from the outside.”

Decades later, she was able to receive a phone call from Nelson Mandela, who wished to appoint her a judge of the High Court of South Africa. “I thought it was my brother playing a joke on me,” she recalled.

It was during study at the University of Natal, where she obtained a BA and LLB, that Pillay first recognised “international treaties, the Geneva Convention and the Nuremburg trials” as components of a structure that would help her get around the “stagnant system” of South African municipal law.

Speaking as a former judge of the International Criminal Court, and president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, she advocated the strength of external international law as a way to hold states to account, as well as working around apartheid.

However, when Pillay first embarked on a legal career during apartheid, no legal practice would hire her.

In her address, she recalled some of the reasons given by employers for refusing to hire her:

“Woman, what if you get pregnant? It wouldn’t be possible to get a white secretary to take your orders… What connections do you have? Do you have a practicing father, or uncles?”

Pillay soon set up her own legal practice, which specialised in human rights. “When doors are closed,” she reflected, “you try and open them.”

She conceded that the field of human rights is still a work in progress: “The cup is not half full. Women, minorities and migrants are still abused… Power still corrupts.” However, Pillay’s message was one of cautious hope. She maintains her belief in activism, as well as the instrument of law. “Students are armed with protest,” she concluded, “and the world outside gives a damn.”

Photo by Alex Trant