In December 2020, Durban-born judge and human rights activist, Navanethem “Navi” Pillay was awarded Germany’s highest civilian decoration, the Federal Cross of Merit. The award strives to honour those who contribute to the significant rebuilding of their countries in the fields of politics, intellectual activity, and socio-economics. The distinction sought to honour Pillay’s lifework and her ongoing commitment to human rights, which have seen her hold the prominent position of UN Commissioner of Human Rights from 2008 to 2014 and operate in the highest courts in the world. In celebrating her contribution to human rights, German Ambassador Martin Schäfer shared:
“Your life’s struggle has been arduous, sometimes painful, maybe with moments of despair, but it was inspiring, meaningful, and successful: You have brought about change – you have made a difference to the world stage!”
A struggle hero and defender of human rights
After obtaining her legal degree in 1965, Pillay did her articles with ANC member Narainsamy Thumbi Naicker who was banned by the state and subjected to house arrest. By 1967 she became the first woman of colour in (what was then) Natal to open a law clinic and offered legal services to political activists who were imprisoned by the apartheid government. On opening the practice, Pillay explained:
“No law firm would employ me because they said they could not have white employees taking instructions from a coloured person.”
Despite running her own practice, under apartheid’s discriminatory laws, she was unable to enter a judge’s chamber because of the colour of her skin. During this time, Pillay gleaned first-hand knowledge of the torture that detainees were forced to endure, including solitary confinement. By the early 1970s, she was advocating for the right of political prisoners imprisoned on Robben Island to access legal counsel. She was successful in her efforts. During her 28 years as a lawyer in apartheid South Africa, she courageously campaigned against torture methods and terrible prison conditions. When her husband, Gaby Pillay, was detained by the state, she ensured that they would not use unlawful interrogation methods against him.
She went on to run a shelter for those facing domestic violence and formed an international women’s rights group in 1992 called Equality Now. In 1995, she was nominated by Mandela to serve as a judge in South Africa’s High Court. She was the first non-white woman to do so, and of this moment revealed:
“the first time I entered a judge’s chambers was when I entered my own.”
Pillay also played a pivotal role in drafting Section 9 of South Africa’s democratic constitution that prevented discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, and sexual orientation. This clause has been lauded as groundbreaking by the global community, and South Africa was the first country in the world to legislate against sexual orientation as a grounds for unfair discrimination.
An international icon
Following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal elected Pillay to serve as a judge. For the first four years she was the only woman judge on the tribunal and was celebrated for her ruling that sexual violence and rape were acts of genocide, rather than “spoils of war.”
In July 2008, Pillay was elected as the UN Commissioner of Human Rights and was vocal about her support for gay rights and gender equality. She has also spoken out about the “global paralysis” with regards to the war in Syria.
A true defender of human rights across the globe, Navi Pillay is a shining example of a Durban hero and human rights defender. In her own words: