South African of Indian origin takes over as top UN rights official

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United Nations, Sep 2 (UNI) Ms Navanethem Pillay yesterday began her duties as the top UN human rights official, taking over a growing office that now has 1,000 employees in 50 countries.

Ms Pillay, a renowned South African jurist of Indian origin, was appointed the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in July by the General Assembly, on the recommendation of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. She became the fifth High Commissioner since the office was created in 1993.

She is the daughter of a Tamil bus driver and was born in 1941 in the Indian Ocean port city of Durban.

Since 2003, Ms Pillay has served as Judge in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Based in The Hague, Netherlands, it is the first permanent independent court set up to try cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Prior to that, she served as both Judge and President on the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which she joined in 1995.

Her career as a human rights advocate began in her home country, where she made a name for herself as a grass-roots lawyer who defended many anti-apartheid campaigners, according to a news release issued by her office.

In 1967 she became the first woman to start law practice in South Africa's Natal Province, and in 1995, after the end of apartheid, she became the first non-white woman to be appointed a judge in the South African High Court.

A fervent supporter of women's rights, Ms Pillay was one of the co-founders of the international non-governmental organisation Equality Now, which campaigns for women's rights. She has also been involved in issues relating to children, detainees, victims of torture, and of domestic violence as well as a range of other economic, social and cultural rights.

The new High Commissioner, who has a law degree from Harvard University, succeeded Louise Arbour of Canada, who completed her term on June 30.

Ms Pillay had earlier been selected in preference to two others.

According to diplomatic circles, a selection committee picked her name basing on such considerations as gender, geographic origin and experience. Pakistan's Hina Jalani, a special UN envoy on human rights, could not win support from Islamabad. The other person whose name was considered by the committee was Argentine Juan Mendez, a special UN envoy on genocide.

UNI XC AM BST0606

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