Rights advocate seeks end to impunity for war crimes


Navi Pillay’s own experiences shape how she deals with human rights issues, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

THE EXPERIENCE of growing up and beginning her work as a human rights advocate in apartheid South Africa has never left Navi Pillay. It is an experience that deeply informs her work as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

“I can never separate myself from what somebody who is violated feels like, because that experience is real to me,” the former South African judge says during a visit to Dublin.

“I will always be very close to and identify with the plight of victims. I would not be attracted to what is expedient, strategic or politically correct – that is what my experience has taught me.”

Her predecessor, Louise Arbour, was vocal in her criticism of how measures taken by the Bush administration and other governments to combat terrorism since the September 11th, 2001, attacks had damaged the human rights agenda. Pillay notes that the Obama administration has proved more supportive.

“Both from the statements and actions from the current US administration, there is a clear demonstration of a commitment to protect human rights and to restore standards that are respected universally,” she says.

The decision by the Obama administration to reverse a Bush- era boycott of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), despite “propaganda which portrayed the council as biased and a venue for bashing Israel”, was, Pillay says, of great significance.

The HRC has, through the introduction of new review structures, done much to overcome the poor reputation of its forerunner, the Human Rights Commission.

“Member states take charge of each other’s human rights record and 80 states have already been reviewed on the same criteria applicable to all states,” Pillay says. “I’m not saying that it is going perfectly, I’m saying that this is a good mechanism.”

Pillay praises Ireland’s support for a recent UN resolution calling for investigations into allegations that war crimes were committed during the January conflict in Gaza. “I agree with Ireland’s reasoning that the call for investigation is a legitimate call.

“If someone robs you on the street, you want an investigation, an identification of the suspect and a prosecution. Where societies have taken that route – my country’s truth and reconciliation commission, for instance – you find that there has been a management of the passions that arise from victims’ calls about injustice.”

Pillay stresses the importance of the Goldstone report on the Gaza conflict – which prompted the UN resolution – because it is grounded in international law.

“Whatever the justification to go to war is, you cannot use disproportionate violence and you cannot target civilians,” she says.

Pillay has also called for an inquiry into alleged human rights violations committed during the conflict in Sri Lanka. “It is time for all states to remind themselves of the principle of accountability to which we all subscribe to . . . we want to end impunity for serious crimes. I have called for an international investigation because that is what I have been doing for all situations such as this – it is not just Sri Lanka. And the absence of such an inquiry means that I must continue making such calls.”

The human rights situation in Iran, generally and in relation to the crackdown on post-election protests in June, is also a matter of concern. “We have written to the government asking them to protect the right of protest and the right of free speech,” Pillay says. “We are watching those trials and we are appalled at the severity of the sentences.”

How has Tehran responded? “That it is subject to the judicial process, that it is in the hands of the judges. But of course it is a matter of concern that they are continuing to suppress protest.”

Pillay has highlighted the impact of economic, financial and climate change crises on human rights, and she has drawn attention to the issue of caste- based discrimination which, she notes, affects 250 million people.

The challenges presented by the changing nature of modern warfare also weigh heavily. Last month a UN human rights investigator warned the US that its use of drones to target militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan may violate international law. “Maybe it is time to go back and revisit the Geneva Convention to see whether its provisions cover the way modern wars and conflicts are being conducted,” says Pillay.