International Judicial Monitor
Published by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy
Jan/Feb 2007, Volume 2, Issue 1

Justice In Profile

Judge Navanethem Pillay

Judge Navanethem PillayOne of the serendipities for the world of the end of apartheid in South Africa and the emergence of a multi-racial society and government has been the emergence into the international legal order of two world-class jurists who have been extraordinarily influential in furthering the cause of human rights. One of those jurists is Navanethem (Navi) Pillay, current member of the International Criminal Court in The Hague (the other is Richard Goldstone, featured in another article in the current issue of this publication).

Judge Pillay, born into apartheid in Durban, South Africa, is the child of a bus driver.

Judge Pillay is a product of apartheid South Africa. She was born in that country, in the Indian section of Durban, in Natal Province, in 1941, one of four daughters of a bus driver. It was in her native province that she began to achieve a whole series of “firsts” that have characterized her life. She started her own law firm there – the first woman of color to do so.

However it was at the University of Natal, where she attended law school and received her degree, that she first became acquainted with international criminal law. In the law school library, she came across and read many of the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals following World War II. The principle emerging from those transcripts of individual accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity has stayed with her throughout her legal and judicial careers.

 As a practicing lawyer, beginning in 1967, Judge Pillay represented victims of the racial separation laws of South Africa. A criminal defense lawyer, she defended other persons of color on charges of violating the racial laws of South Africa’s white regime at a time when the South African bar was not only racially segregated, but also male dominated. One characteristic of the legal regime then was that non-white lawyers were not permitted to enter a judge’s chambers.

A turning point in Judge Pillay’s career was her acceptance into the graduate law program of Harvard Law School, where she earned a Master of Laws degree in 1982 and a Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.) degree in 1988.  Her Harvard degrees allowed her to return to South Africa with increased prestige to lead the fight against unjust judgments imposed on colored defendants by white magistrates in racial cases.

Judge Pillay became president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1999. In her first term, she was the only woman on the court.

Judge Pillay’s judicial career began in 1995 in two different tribunals. She was appointed Acting Judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa, the first woman to sit on that court, and also as a judge on the newly formed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (the only woman sitting during her first term on that court). The ICTR was responsible for hearing cases involving genocide and crimes against humanity as a result of the mass killings by members of the Hutu majority in Rwanda in the early 1990s. She became President of the ICTR in 1999.

Judge Pillay, during her tenure on the Rwanda Tribunal, was involved in three major decisions that have contributed greatly to the development of international criminal law:

1. Jean-Paul Akayesu, mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba was convicted of genocide (the first person so convicted by an international criminal court). The significance of the opinion, made possible by Judge Pillay’s presence, is the holding that rape constitutes a crime against humanity, and when it is directed to destroy a specific group, it constitutes genocide.

2. Jean Kambanda, Rwanda’s former Prime Minister, was convicted of genocide (under a guilty plea), the first head of government to be held so accountable.

3. Three Rwandans were convicted of using the media to incite genocide.

In 2006, Judge Pillay was awarded the Women’s Rights Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation

Following eight and one-half years on the ICTR, the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute, in 2003, elected Judge Pillay as one of 18 judges to serve on the International Criminal Court. Judge Pillay’s presence on that international tribunal is especially significant and valuable because the tribunal thus far has before it only cases from Africa.

Apart from her judicial duties Judge Pillay has traveled extensively, speaking not only on international criminal justice, but also human rights, women’s and equality issues, and the evils of sexual violence.

Among many honors bestowed on her, in 2006 she was awarded the Women’s Rights Prize of the Peter Gruber Foundation.

James G. Apple, Co-Editor, International Judicial Monitor and President, International Judicial Academy

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© 2006 – The American Society of International Law and International Judicial Academy.

Editors: James G. Apple, Andrew Solomon and Maria Staunton.
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