Judge Navi Pillay at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva. His half-century of human rights activism spans both sides of our democracy. Photo: Reuters / Denis Balibouse
Pillay is one of South Africa’s top exports in human rights and international law. Between 2008 and 2014, she was United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Last week, she was the guest speaker at Stellenbosch University’s 15th Annual Human Rights Conference. His speech, titled “South Africa’s Engagement with International Human Rights Law,” provided a de facto audit of much of our foreign policy in the democratic age. It was deemed insufficient.
This year marked the 15 Annual Human Rights Conference organized under the Chair of Human Rights Law of the University of Stellenbosch, professor Sandy Liebenberg. It was also one of the events chosen to mark the centenary of Stellenbosch Law School. In previous editions, the conference has attracted many of our top jurists, including Dikgang Moseneke, Edwin Cameron and Yvonne Mokgoro. His guest speaker in 2021, Judge Navi Pillay, brought an experience and reputation that could not have been more relevant to many of the challenges facing law and human rights globally.
Partly because she has spent much of her career outside South Africa, Pillay is not as well known here as she deserves. Her half-century of human rights activism spans both sides of our democracy, starting as so many seasoned black lawyers as a law student taking up the baton in the fight against apartheid , but continuing its efforts to deepen our democracy and in particular to give effect to the Constitution of 1996.
However, unlike most of his contemporaries, Pillay’s greatest contribution has been beyond our borders.
Between 1994 and 2004 she was a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda set up to try international crimes following the Rwandan genocide of 1994. According to Liebenberg: “In this role, she is best remembered for the to judge that rape and sexual assault constitute acts of genocide. She later served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to 2014. Today, even in “retirement”, she plays a number of important roles, including currently as a ad hoc judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, in a genocide complaint against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Keeping the “ Mandela Promise ”
Pillay made it clear at the start of his lecture that the topic would be “to consider whether we have acted consistently and vigorously to deliver on Mandela’s promise, namely, his insistence that” human rights will be the light that will guide our foreign affairs ”.
This was necessary, she suggested, because “we[…]have located our country not on an island per se, but as part of a community of states aspiring to make respect for human rights a global standard. The preamble to our Constitution specifies that our place is within “the family of nations”. This means that we never claim “South Africa First” as Donald Trump’s “America First”. Our country cannot go it alone. Divided, as they say, we fall. We should therefore rather follow the path of multilateralism. ”
In his lecture, Pillay explored the diplomatic fronts where South Africa engages the international community and analyzed its record in the protection of human rights. This included our role in the African Union and the United Nations Security Council as well as in various United Nations treaty bodies, including the Human rights council.
Sadly, says Pillay, the instances where South Africa has failed to exceed the number of times we’ve set an example for the world. She congratulated South Africa for having ratified all the major United Nations human rights treaties and for the only instance in 2011 where we sponsored “the first United Nations Resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity, who expressed “grave concern” at the violence and discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity ”.
But there is more often a “dark side” to South Africa’s engagements, she said, something she found “painful”. One of his general fears was “the real, dangerous – and disturbing – precedent of a post-Mandela government offering the same excuse as the apartheid regime to avoid condemning human rights violations,” an conclusion she set out with a number of examples which she described as “symptomatic of a deeper distrust among South African governments in the place of human rights at the UN”.
Later in the speech, Pillay observed how “South Africa’s votes on a series of human rights resolutions are inconsistent and not necessarily in line with the ethics of our Constitution”.
For example, Pillay drew particular attention to South Africa’s vote against an October 2018 Human Rights Council resolution “on the protection of human rights defenders working for the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights ”. In this case, South Africa sided with Russia, China, Egypt, Cuba and Pakistan in opposing “new obligations on states to provide support funding to long term of civil society organizations, new reporting obligations of states in the civil society space, and facilitating favorable banking conditions to enable cross-border transfer of funds for organizations and to offer tax incentives to donors “.
Given the role of civil society in South Africa, and the fact that this was in the first year of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency, an explanation is warranted, especially because, as Pillay said, the resolution noted “the positive contribution of and pluralist civil society to peace, security, sustainable development and human rights, and emphasizes reforms aimed at preserving the capacity of actors in society civilians to fully exercise the rights to freedom of expression, opinion, assembly and association. These rights are enshrined in our Bill of Rights. South Africa should have stood up for them and made a commitment to protect human rights defenders. “
The Pillay conference also presented a reform program which will hopefully have been heard by the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, the President and DIRCO.
She called, for example, for South Africa to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and for South Africa to “play a role in strengthening the authority of the Security Council in the area of human rights and reducing the use of the veto power in situations of massive human rights violations. ‘man”.
She called for “whatever group or regional loyalties South Africa supports, these must not come at the expense of upholding its stated commitments to constitutional rights and values and the promises of their implementation ”.
It is a positive sign that, in recent days, Ramaphosa has spoken more on the international scene in favor of the defense of human rights. He owns condemned the Israeli attacks on Palestine as a violation of international law and criticized “vaccine nationalism” in a speech in France.
This seems to confirm Pillay’s claim that: “The pandemic clearly shows that, more than ever, multilateralism, not unilateralism, is the answer to combat the pandemic and build a new and better standard. We must act globally to stem the rising tide of illiberal tendencies, nationalism, populism and authoritarianism that threaten our fundamental freedoms and which collectively stymie progress in the protection of human rights for those who don’t.
“We must act in solidarity to protect the planet against climate change, against threats to peace and ensure the protection and promotion of the human rights of all people, leaving no one behind.”
Approving the Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres plan to reform the UN to make it fit to face the modern challenges of humanity, Pillay said there is a “need to get back to the fundamentals, we have to get back to the framework that has held us together.” We have to go back to the Charter of the United Nations. South Africa too. ” DM / MC
Judge Pillay’s full lecture is available here.