Navanethem (Navi) Pillay was born on 23 September 1941 in Clairwood, Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). She attended the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal - UKZN) where she graduated with BA in 1963 and then a LLB degree in 1965. At University she joined the Non European Unity Movement (NEUM – now known as the New Unity Movement of South Africa).
After completing her university degrees, Pillay commenced her legal career by doing her articles in Durban under the guidance of Narainsamy Thumbi Naicker, a banned member of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) and the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) who was also under house arrest.
In 1967, Pillay became the first Black woman to open her own law practice in Natal. She provided legal assistance for activists from different political organizations detained by the apartheid government.
In her first case, after starting her own legal practice, she represented Phyllis Naidoo who was charged for failing to report to the police station as a banned person. In 1971, she represented 10 members of the NEUM who were charged under the Terrorism Act. Pillay also represented her husband Gaby Pillay — now late — who was detained by the Security Police under the Terrorism Act. This exposed the practice and effects of torture and solitary confinement on political detainees held in police custody. In 1973, she fought and won the right for political prisoners to have access to legal counsel. In the mid 1970s, Pillay defended detained members of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) such as Saths Cooper and Strini Moodley.
In 1982, she obtained a Master of Law and in 1988 a Doctor of Juridical Science from Harvard University in the United States of America (USA).
Pillay lectured at the UKZN, and was appointed Vice-President of the Council of the University of Durban Westville (now UKZN). In 1995, after the end of apartheid, Pillay was appointed an acting judge in the South African High Court, and in the same year was elected by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to be a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), where she served a total of eight years, the last four (1999-2003) as President. She was the only woman judge for the first four years of the tribunal. Judge Pillay played a critical role in the ICTR's groundbreaking jurisprudence on rape as genocide, as well as on issues of freedom of speech and hate propaganda.
Judge Pillay’s tenure at the ICTR is best remembered for her role in the landmark trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, which established that rape and sexual assault could constitute acts of genocide. In an interview, Pillay said , “From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime. We want to send out a strong signal that rape is no longer a trophy of war”
In February 2003 Judge Pillay was elected to the first ever panel of judges of the International Criminal Court and assigned to the Appeals Division. She was elected to a six-year term but resigned in August 2008 in order to take up her position with the UN.
On 24 July 2008 UN Secretary-General Ban K-moon nominated Judge Pillay to succeed Louise Arbour as High Commissioner for Human Rights. The USA reportedly resisted her appointment at first, because of her views on abortion and other issues but eventually dropped its opposition.
The appointment of Judge Pillay as United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights was approved by the UN’s General Assembly on 28 July 2008. She took up the post on 1 September 2008. Her mandate was renewed for two years beginning on 1 September 2012. Judge Pillay was the fifth UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to be appointed since the office was founded.
In May 2009, following the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Judge Pillay called for an investigation into alleged violations of human rights by both sides in the Sri Lankan civil war. In June 2009, the Sri Lankan Human Rights Minister, Mahincla Samarasinghe, expressed concerns that Judge Pillay’s statements were making it difficult for Sri Lanka to engage in dialogue with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Judge Pillay has been criticised for saying she will not attend the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in December 2010. The award was given to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. China called on nations and various inter-governmental bodies to boycott the ceremony. Pillay’s office rejected accusations that she was responding to pressure from China and insisted she could not attend the award ceremony because of a clash with another event for Human Rights Day. Judge Pillay called for Mr Liu to be released ‘as soon as possible”.
In South Africa, as a member of the Women's National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion of the equality clause in the country’s constitution that prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. Judge Pillay co-founded Equality Now, an international women's rights organization, and has been involved with other organizations working on issues relating to children, detainees, victims of torture and of domestic violence, and a range of economic, social and cultural rights.
2003-2008 -- Appeals Division Judge, International Criminal Court in The Hague
1999-2003 -- President, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
1995-1999 -- Judge, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda 1995; Acting Judge, Supreme Court of South Africa
1995 -- Vice-President, University of Durban Westville
1985 -- Co-founded international women's rights group Equality Now
1980 -- Lecturer, University of KwaZulu-Natal
1967-1995 – Attorney and Conveyancer, High Court of South Africa
1967 -- First woman to start a law practice in Natal Province, South Africa. Defence attorney for many anti-apartheid activists.
2003 - Inaugural Gruber Prize for Women’s Rights
Honorary degrees by Durham University
City University of New York School of Law
London School of Economics
2009 - Forbes ranked her as the 64th most powerful woman in the world
2017 - Honoray Doctorate, Durban University of Technology
UNOHCHR. (2008). Navanethem Pillay. Available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/NaviPillay.aspx online. Accessed on 31 July 2017|Tufts Now. (2017). Navanethem (Navi) Pillay online. Available at https://now.tufts.edu/commencement2015/biographies/pillay , 17 August 2017. Accessed on 31 July 2017|Winentrance. (2017). Biography of Navanethem Pillay online. Available at https://www.winentrance.com/general_knowledge/navanethem-pillay.html . Accessed on 31 July 2017
- Interview with Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Christof Heyns