Sun, Aug 24, 2014 - Page 9 News List

For outgoing UN human rights leader, finish line looks blurry

By Nick Cumming-Bruce  /  NY Times News Service, GENEVA

In her final days as the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay has neither slowed down nor shied away from controversy.

In mid-July, Pillay, 72, a South African, released a report setting out the right to privacy under international law and how this right had been violated by the “dangerous habit” of mass surveillance among intelligence agencies.

Days later, at the UN Human Rights Council, Pillay called on Israel and on Hamas, the Islamist faction that dominates the Gaza Strip, to account for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity through indiscriminate attacks on civilians. She criticized Israel’s blockade of Gaza and told world powers that they need to do “far more than they have done” to end the cycle of violence.

As members of her staff dig through the resulting avalanche of hate mail from both those who support Israel and those who side with the Palestinians, Pillay is preparing to meet members of the UN Security Council next week to discuss conflict prevention. Her tenure will end next Sunday after six years, the longest term that anyone has served in the job since it was created 20 years ago.

Born into apartheid and raised as the daughter of a Tamil bus driver, Pillay rose to become the first nonwhite woman to open a law practice in South Africa and the first to be appointed as a judge in the nation’s high court.

“I leave office with a sense of pride,” Pillay said in an interview last month in her lakeside Geneva office. In promoting human rights, she said, “I have pushed my mandate to the limit.”

As evidence of the growing influence and authority of her office, foreign policy analysts noted that Pillay had briefed the Security Council more often in her six years in the job than all six previous high commissioners combined.

However, Pillay said she felt a “touch of despair” that the world had gone backward on human rights, citing the drawn-out conflicts in Syria and other regions and the failure of the international community to end them.

“I, and my predecessors and successors as high commissioner for human rights, can only offer the facts, the law and common sense, however much we are criticized for it,” Pillay told the Human Rights Council last month.

Human rights activists give her high marks for speaking up early and vigorously on Syria as well as on a string of crises in the Middle East, Africa and, most recently, Ukraine.

STRONG RECORD

Reports from commissions of inquiry, which Pillay set up to document atrocities in Syria and North Korea, are seen by many diplomats as authoritative, groundbreaking documents that provide a solid basis for eventually bringing those responsible to justice.

“Her record overall is a very strong one,” Human Rights Watch advocacy director Peggy Hicks said in an interview from New York. “She has spoken out forcefully and effectively. She has been a powerful presence pushing for the world and the UN system to do more on those issues.”

Some of her predecessors showed more deference to governments, said Michael Ignatieff, a professor specializing in government and human rights at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former member of the Canadian Parliament. Pillay has shown no such inhibitions.

“Now, in 2014, we have an office that is often robustly critical,” Ignatieff said in a telephone interview. “It didn’t begin with her, but it’s been accelerated by her. This is an important development, and she should be praised for that.”

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