Navanethem Pillay, Judge – South Africa

Born in South Africa in 1941, Judge Navanethem Pillay has been both a symbol and a standard-bearer for women’s rights in her country, in the region, and throughout the world. She works for Pro-Femmes Twese Hamw.

Navanethem Pillay, Judge – South Africa

She received her Bachelor of Arts and her Bachelor of Law degrees from Natal University in South Africa and later a Master of Law and Doctor of Juridical Science at Harvard University, U.S.A.

She opened her law practice in 1967 – the first woman to do so in Natal Province. As senior partner in the firm, she represented many opponents of apartheid, and became such a threat to the apartheid regime that she was denied a passport for many years. She handled precedent-setting cases to establish the effects of solitary confinement, the right of political prisoners to due process, and the family violence syndrome as a defense.

In 1995 came another first – she was the first black woman attorney appointed acting judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa. On the heels of that appointment, Judge Pillay was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to be a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served for eight years, including several years as president. During her tenure, the ICTR rendered a judgment against Jean-Paul Akayesu, mayor of Taba commune in Rwanda, finding him guilty of genocide for the use of rape in the “destruction of the spirit, of the will to live and of life itself.”

As Judge Pillay said in an Occasional Paper she delivered in 2002, the jurisprudence on gender issues emanating from the UN criminal tribunals both in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia “provides a precedent in the ways in which international and regional bodies view and treat sexual violence.” The evidence coming out of these trials so horrified the world community that in 1998 the Statute for the International Criminal Court became the first international treaty “to recognize a range of acts of sexual and gender violence as among the most serious crimes under international law. Most of these crimes had never before been explicitly articulated as crimes in any international instrument or domestic criminal code.”

In February 2003, Judge Pillay was elected by the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute, as one of the 18 Judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Judge Pillay’s commitment to human rights and to women’s issues extends beyond her work on the bench. She is currently honorary chair for Equality Now and serves on the Board of Directors for Nozala Investments, the women’s component of the National Economic Initiative. She has also held key positions with the Women Lawyers Association, the Advice desk for Abused Women, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Women’s National Coalition, Black Lawyers Association and many other groups. She also lectures widely on legal and social issues of equality and human rights.

Judge Pillay received awards from the IBA for outstanding international woman lawyer, from the National Bar Association for excellence in the pursuit of human rights and was elected honorary member of the American Society of International Law.

A widow, Judge Pillay has two daughters, Isvari Pather and Kamini Pillay. (See the rest on Peter Gruber Foundation).

… It is very difficult to introduce Judge Pillay as she has done so much, and has been the first in so many fields, that it would take up the time that really should go to her, to enumerate them. She has been an attorney for 30 years. She was the first black woman from South Africa to get a doctorate in Law from Harvard. She defended and represented liberationists and activists in South Africa before the changes that happened in that country. She is now sitting on the international – the UN Tribunal for Rwanda – and actually the tribunal is located in Tanzania – the tribunal for Rwanda. She has had an extremely active life with regards to gender and gender issues and women’s activism. She is now the chair of Equality Now, an important women’s human rights organization that brings attention to cases of abuse against women in powerfully effective alerts. I’m also very honored to have her as a member of the advisory group of the Sisterhood is Global Institute. (See the rest of this article on State of the World).

She says: As a child, and even as an adult in South Africa, I never thought that I would see the end of apartheid in my lifetime. And so now I wonder whether children born today in my country will ever really know what apartheid was like for those of us who lived through it. After 300 years, apartheid became history in – relatively- a short period of time. So what I want to look at, in keeping with the theme of the conference, are some of the actions that made a difference in our struggle and some of the other ongoing struggles I’m still engaged in, and how we can apply some of the lessons we have learned to accelerate the pace of social change.

I remember, as a child, being asked to, for instance, pronounce the word ‘water’ at school. And when I did so, properly, then they labeled me, and said, ‘Well, you think you’re a black European.’ Because I said ‘water’ instead of ‘watER’ or something. So the message that came from the community was, ‘Know your place and don’t even try to aspire to be something else. Don’t even try to change.’ So they don’t tell you what your place is and why.

I think, as children, we all start off with the presumption that we are as good as anyone else and then we are trained to be deferential. And in South Africa, we were trained to see ourselves as second class citizens. Those of you who’ve read Nelson Mandela’s book Long Road To Freedom, would see in the first few chapters he said that, for instance, Nelson is not his name. But when he entered school, the teacher assigned them Christian names, and that’s how he was assigned the name Nelson. This is the kind of non-status that we all labored under. Black was a non-person, and you never were proud of being black. For instance, you know, there was a lot of prohibition and banning and one of the things they banned was Black Beauty, because they thought it’s praising black people, and then they realized that this is the name of a horse.

When I was at Harvard, I was there with my children, so my daughter, [Carmony] was ten years old, so she had a year’s schooling at Cambridge, near Harvard. When we went back, I think the school asked her to speak and the teachers called me to say that what she said to the assembly was, “In the United States I was treated as a person, and here I am treated as a thing.” So, this kind of non-status was instilled in the law, but we didn’t know that. We grew up thinking that it was THE way of life to be classified European and non-European – the non-person. And we grew accustomed to accepting that facilities such as park benches, beaches, housing, schools, were reserved for Europeans only. And so we were very amused when some Americans thought, when they visited, that they couldn’t enjoy these European-only facilities.

Read on news India-Times online: Durban – A South African Indian woman who has excelled in international law is the country?s candidate for election to the International Criminal Court. Judge Navanethem Pillay is currently the president of the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda.

The United Nations appointed her as a judge in 1995. Her tasks involve presiding over the trial of scores of people accused of genocide in the fighting that left thousands dead in Rwanda and Burundi. Pillay, 62, obtained a masters of law and doctorate of juridical science at Harvard University. She was the first Indian woman attorney in South Africa to be appointed as an acting judge. Positions of judges were previously reserved for whites only under apartheid.

Her book: A Society of Mankind, Not States – Law and Policy, Federation Press.


contemporary Africa database;

Rhodes Uni;

Peter Gruber Foundation;

Constitutional Court;


Center of Human Rights;



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