Having recently stepped down as UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay has spent the past six years urging governments to live up to their human rights obligations—the latest position in a career that has seen her serve as a judge in South Africa’s high court, the international tribunal for Rwanda and the ICC in The Hague. In this wide-ranging interview, Pillay argues that Africa has benefited greatly from ICC interventions, that no one should be immune from prosecution for the grave crimes that continue to blight the world, and that all UN member states need to ratify the Rome Statute (RS).
What are your biggest achievements and disappointments from your term in office as UN high commissioner for human rights?
This is a big question. Let’s start with the achievements. As high commissioner I addressed all types of discrimination and violations around the world without bias, working for the rights of all peoples. This included the right to development at the behest of many developing countries. We pushed for the recognition of the rights to food, water, health, and urged an end to poverty.
I am proud that we achieved a huge increase in awareness of human rights issues, particularly through social media. We are now able to reach out to and hear from civil societies all over the world—a crucial partner for our work.
We also managed to get some previously neglected rights on the UN agenda, such as those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community—which we addressed under the right to freedom from violence and discrimination—and caste-based discrimination in India, Nepal and among indigenous communities. Yet much work remains to be done there.
The establishment of commissions of inquiry were also successful in documenting gross human rights violations. For example, Justice Michael Kirby’s inquiry into North Korea shone a revealing light onto a situation that had been ignored for 60 years.
In terms of disappointments, one of the biggest is surely the failure of international community to take collective action to prevent human rights violations. I tried in vain five times to get UN Security Council to refer Syria to ICC for investigation.
It is also shocking that even though human rights is one of the UN’s three pillars, it remains so poorly funded, receiving only around 3% of the overall UN budget. And this at the moment when there is so much demand for assistance from governments and global civil society. We have seen time and again that the way to prevent conflict, and to prevent serious crimes, is to address the early warnings—which are human rights issues.
How much and in what way has the international justice movement changed the human rights landscape over the past 20 years?
Twenty years ago, there simply was no permanent international criminal justice system. Very serious crimes would be committed, particularly by those in positions of authority, with no accountability. Instead, perpetrators were given shelter by other countries. From that situation it is almost miraculous that we have the ICC, a great achievement on the part of the international community.
The demand for justice is really there. While most governments prefer the route of amnesty, all victims want justice and accountability. We now know that conflicts can re-erupt because justice was not addressed. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of people have told me how long they had waited for justice. The ICC is now known by people the world over—and they want investigations in their own countries. But we must remember that local populations need to be consulted on the type of justice they want.
The early ad hoc tribunals made international justice a reality by fleshing out the crimes and jurisdiction. As a judge at the Rwanda tribunal, I am very satisfied to have made contribution to turning this idea into a reality. It is wonderful that the ICC has now set a new precedent for states by spelling out the rights for victims to participate in proceedings and to receive reparations—something I contributed to first hand during my time as an ICC appeals judge.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for human rights and international justice in the next 20 years?
Many people have asked me if human rights are still relevant in the face of the failure to deal with conflict in places such as Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Ukraine. In Syria alone, the latest fatality count stands at 192,000. Despite all of this, they are relevant. Apart from six or seven countries, the world is complying with the international framework for the respect, promotion and protection of human rights.
We see growing problems with many armed rebel movements, against whom governments often seem too powerless to act. There are also huge expectations on the UN Security Council, yet it has no enforcement mechanisms and quite a limited area of action.
I am also very concerned with statements being made in the African Union (AU) that African states are being targeted by the ICC. Africa is the one continent benefitting most from the existence of the ICC. It is because African governments were unable to investigate and prosecute grave crimes that they invited the ICC to intervene. Seven out of nine of the ICC’s investigations followed invitations from African governments. The two that weren’t—Libya and Darfur—were referred by the UN Security Council. The ICC is rendering assistance to Africa in its time of need. If the ICC was not there, there would be no focus on these crimes.
As for the adoption of AU resolutions to protect the immunity of sitting heads of state, they are in contravention to international law, the RS and many national constitutions.
These developments threaten to undermine the fight against impunity and integrity of the RS that 122 states—including most African states—have subscribed to. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by statements by many African governments, including many AU members, reiterating their commitment to ending impunity. We need to hear more of these voices.
How can the UN system better serve the interests of justice?
Put simply, UN member states must all ratify the RS—this is vital for the credibility of the ICC and international justice. Many states signed the RS, but fewer have ratified it and there remain many gaps, such as in Asia. The three big powers—United States, Russia and China—must also eventually become members.
All states must back the principles of no impunity for serious crimes and that no one is beyond the rule law. These are already part of the UN framework, so they should be part of the delivery as well. If the UN does not support the ICC fully, it’s failing in its own mission: to prevent conflict and save lives.
A version of this post appeared in our 2014 Global Justice Monitor.