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Navi Pillay

The Practice of Freedom: Impunity, Justice, and the Law: with Judge Navanethem ‘Navi’ Pillay

Lecture | November 27 | 5-6:30 p.m. | Simon Hall, Goldberg Room, room 297, Berkeley Law


Judge Navanethem "Navi" Pillay

Center for Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights Project Race and Gender, Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law, Berkeley Law, International Human Rights Law Clinic, Berkeley Law, Gender and Women's Studies, School of Law, University of Kwazulu-Natal at Durban


Judge Navanethem ‘Navi’ Pillay will speak to her work spanning the struggle for freedom in South Africa, on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, on the International Criminal Court, and as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, including her current work on international justice and against the death penalty. She will be in conversation with professors Angana Chatterji, founding Co-chair of the Project on Political Conflict, Gender and People's Rights and visiting Research Anthropologist at the Center for Race and Gender, Abdul R. JanMohamed, English, Mariane C. Ferme, Anthropology and African Studies and Curator of African Ethnology at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Paola Bacchetta, Gender and Women's Studies and Co-chair of the Project on Political Conflict, Gender and People's Rights, and Managay Reddi, Dean and Head of the School of Law, University of Kwazulu-Natal at Durban and Advocate of the High Court of South Africa. Professor Leti Volpp, Berkeley Law, will provide opening remarks.

Judge Pillay was raised in apartheid South Africa. Of the Tamil Diaspora, her grandparents were indentured to South Africa from the Madras Presidency in colonized India in the late nineteenth century. Navi Pillay grew up with a passionate dedication to challenge and remedy injustice. Dr. Pillay was the first non-white woman to start a law practice in her home in Natal in 1967. During the 28-years she worked as a “colored” lawyer, Navi Pillay had not been permitted to set foot in a judge’s chambers. She provided legal defense for opponents of apartheid, including members of the African National Congress, Unity Movement, Black Consciousness Movement and Azanian People’s Organization. In 1973, Pillay won the right for political prisoners on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers. She worked as a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and was later appointed Vice-President of the Council of the University of Durban Westville. She contributed to the inclusion of an equality clause in the constitution of South Africa in her capacity as a member of the Women’s National Coalition in South Africa. In 1995, Dr. Pillay was appointed Acting Judge in the High Court of South Africa, by appointment of then President Nelson Mandela.  She was the first woman of color and first attorney to serve on the bench. In 1995, Dr. Pillay was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to serve as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a post she held for eight years, including as its president between 1999 and 2002. In this role, she is best remembered for the ruling that rape and sexual assault constitute acts of genocide, stating: “Rape had always been regarded as one of the spoils of war,” “Now it is a war crime, no longer a trophy.”  In 2003, she was elected by the Assembly of State Parties, The Hague, as a judge on the International Criminal Court, a post she held until 2008. Thereafter, Judge Pillay served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from September 2008-2014. Her responsibilities, she said, demanded she work for no less than the full protection of all human rights for all individuals – civil and political rights, economic and social rights – especially for neglected groups, such as women, children, minorities, migrants, indigenous people, those with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Dr. Pillay received a BA and a LLB from Natal University South Africa and holds a Master of Law and a Doctorate of Juridical Science from Harvard University. She is the recipient of the Commandeur de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (award of Commander in the French Legion of Honor, 2016) and numerous honorary doctorates, including from Durham University, City University of New York School of Law, London School of Economics and Tufts University. Judge Pillay co-founded the Advice Desk for the Abused in South Africa and Equality Now, an international women’s rights organization, and has been involved with organizations working on issues relating to children, detainees, victims of torture and of domestic violence, and a range of economic, social and cultural rights.


centerrg@berkeley.edu, 510-643-8488