High Commissioner for Human Rights
Born in South Africa, Judge Navi Pillay received her Bachelor of Arts and her Bachelor of Law degree from Natal University in South Africa and later a Master of Law and Doctor of Juridical Science at Harvard University, U.S.A.
She opened her law practice in 1967 – the first woman to do so in Natal Province. As senior partner in the firm, she represented many opponents of apartheid. She handled precedent-setting cases to establish the effects of solitary confinement, the right of political prisoners to due process, and the family violence syndrome as a defense.
In 1995 she was appointed acting judge of the High Court of South Africa by the Mandela Government, the first woman of colour and first attorney to serve on the Bench.
Judge Pillay was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to be a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served for eight years, including four years as president. She participated in the case of the Prime Minister of Rwanda, Jean Kambanda, convicting him of Genocide and sentencing him to life imprisonment and in the case of Jean-Paul Akayesu, finding him guilty of Rape as an act of Genocide. She was presiding judge in the “Media” trial which set precedential standards for Press Freedom and Press responsibility.
In February 2003, Judge Pillay was elected by the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute, as one of the 18 Judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague and serves on its Appeals Chamber.
Judge Pillay’s commitment to human rights and to women’s issues extends beyond her work on the bench. She is currently honorary chair for Equality Now and serves on the Board of Directors for Nozala Investments, the women’s component of the National Economic Initiative. She has also held key positions with the Women Lawyers Association, the Advice Desk for Abused Women, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Women’s National Coalition, Black Lawyers Association and many other groups. She also lectures widely on legal and social issues of equality and human rights.
Judge Pillay received awards from the International Bar Association for outstanding international woman lawyer from the National Bar Association of USA, the Association of Law Societies of South Africa for excellence in the pursuit of human rights and was elected honorary member of the American Society of International Law (ASIL). In December 2003 she was awarded the Peter Gruber Foundation Women’s Rights Prize and in June 2004 she was awarded the Harvard Law School Association Award. Judge Pillay was recently awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law at a graduation ceremony at Durham University, UK, in June 2007, she received an honorary doctorate in Laws (LLD) from Rhodes University, South Africa in 2005 and in May 2006 she was awarded an Honorary doctorate of Laws (LLD) at The City University of New York.