Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem ‘Navi’ Pillay, discusses the most important human rights issues of our time with Michaela Lissowsky, Senior Manager Human Rights and Rule of Law. Even before her mandate as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to 2014 her impressive career was dedicated to the fight for justice – as a Judge at the High Court in South Africa, President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and Judge at the International Criminal Court.

“We must promote more information about democracy and its meaning.”

Ms. Pillay – when you speak to a group of students and reflect on your long career, what is the most memorable job experience you share with them and why?

I was a lawyer for thirty years, but actually I liked being a judge. This was the profession I was trained for, I had the balance and moderation that a judge needs. Today, I am still a judge at the International Court of Justice. However, my favourite job was the position as High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, because during that time, I did not have to judge people. Rather, as High Commissioner you provide a service to people. Being the High Commissioner for Human Rights was the best thing that ever happened to me.

What are the most important human rights issues that require greater attention?

Currently, we are in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. And if there is one lesson to be learned from this global moment of shock, it is that people must be placed at the centre of all policies to tackle the pandemic. We have to rely on scientific medical information and allocate budgets where the money is invested into the protection of people. This is not the case here in South Africa. A study was conducted on the impact of Covid-19 on local people, which concluded that the main problem facing South Africa is hunger, especially among children. Therefore, I would address poverty and hunger as the primary human rights issues of our time.

All human rights are interlinked, they are indivisible. You need help in order to enjoy your life, you need food and you need fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech. In conflict areas, such as Syria, all human rights are in danger. In countries such as Ethiopia, Saudi-Arabia, Uganda, Egypt and others, journalists are threatened. Fortunately, in South Africa this is not the case. We need to look at each country and on the ground in order to see and understand what the main problems facing civil society are.

Which professional meeting and with whom are you most grateful for?

I am grateful to President Nelson Mandela because he made me the first black woman as an acting judge at the High Court in South Africa. He phoned me at home on the morning of my appointment and told me “Congratulations, this appointment gives me great personal joy!” That was stunning because I was the first black woman in this position. Later on, it was again due to President Mandela that I was selected to an international court, because he nominated me to the United Nations General Assembly and I was voted onto the Rwanda Tribunal. I am grateful to him, even though I was not a member of his party nor had I worked as a judge before. Through Nelson Mandela I became an international criminal judge. This gave me the motivation to always do my very best.

As UN High Commissioner, you had to address all human rights violations in all countries around the world. How did you ensure not to endanger human rights activists while speaking publicly about their issues?

My staff at the office at the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights were extremely skilled, committed and very enthusiastic, but I always cautioned them: Watch your enthusiasm before you put a human rights defender at risk. I knew the value we had in helping these frontline human rights defenders. And the best approach was always to ask them how far we could go, without endangering them. So we protected them by not mentioning names.

Unfortunately, one incident occurred in Uganda, when my office focused on LGBTI rights. The main activist was killed there. I was devastated by that event. We have a responsibility to protect the people who are speaking up.

You were recently appointed as one of the 25 leading figures on the Information and Democracy Commission launched by Reporters without Borders. How can we ensure that human rights are respected online? Which role do big transnational tech companies have to play?

I am very happy to belong to the Information and Democracy Commission. I remember that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazil’s former President, Dilma Rousseff complained to the General Assembly that their cell phones had been hacked by the United States. As a result, we collated a study on the protection of privacy in the digital era. Everybody is very disturbed about the protection of freedom of speech in the digital era. Many governments I have spoken to are deeply concerned that all the main domain servers are based in the United States. This gives one government the control of information from all around the world, that may endanger reporters and journalists.

Human rights work is an ongoing task, what should we more focus on?

What causes anxiety to me are attacks from presidents on the media, like from US President Trump right now. That kind of statements, hate speech and disinformation against the media is very harmful because people get influenced by them. I would say because of some of the so-called strong men that we now have in governments it is very, very urgent that we give our support to information on democracy.

Navanethem Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

You identified as a “black woman” just now. In your biography on the OHCHR webpage, though, your origin is described as “non-white minority in apartheid South Africa”. Wikipedia describes you as “a South African of Indian Tamil origin” and in an interview you were once introduced as “the first woman of colour who became a judge at the High Court of South Africa”. How do you define your origin and identity? Is it important at all?

The fact is: We are all aware of our origins. Mine stem from my grandparents who came to South Africa as indentured labourers. Mahatma Gandhi described this indenture system as semi-slavery. It was a very tough beginning. I grew up under Apartheid in South Africa. They classified us as non-European and discriminated against us. People of colour did not have the right to vote, and were faced with many restrictions. We went to segregated schools and parks. My identity document stated that I was Indian. When I travelled to Sri Lanka in my role as High Commissioner for Human Rights, there was a conflict between the group of Sinhalese and the Tamil. They saw me as Tamil. Then I am a Tamil person, but in South Africa nobody was classified by language, but only by race.

I personally identify as South African because it is my home. This is where I grew up. And we joined the struggle for a non-racial South Africa, the struggle for one nation. This is what Nelson Mandela represents in our country: One nation without any discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender and so on. The Black Lives Matter protests show me how much racism continues to exist. Today, only white Americans can call themselves Americans. Everybody else is identified as Hispanic-American, American-Indian, Native-American or Black-American. And I hope that this does not happen in South Africa. We are all South Africans and we do not want a racial tag that underlines where you are from.

Are the digital giants doing enough to protect freedom of speech?

The major problem is the lack of transparency in these big companies. However, I have noticed that Facebook has introduced some regulations and set up an oversight body. This is precisely what the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are encouraging corporations to do: set up focal persons, have oversight mechanisms and conduct their businesses ethically.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were developed and published during your mandate as UN High Commissioner. How would you gauge its implementation?

We should inspire people to behave in a principled way, to behave ethically, to consider the health of the staff, not to put profit before health. That’s the main idea behind the UN Guiding Principles. When we developed the Principles, I was quite comfortable that it is voluntary. Some states adopted laws in order to make its implementation a legal obligation. Now, some countries are pushing the UN Human Rights Council to establish a Treaty on Business and Human Rights. I am not in favour of introducing new human rights laws. It is better to make the already existing human rights laws work, although I see the value of legal obligations. Protecting human rights has to become an interest for businesses.

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