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Top UN Human Rights Official Pledges to Tackle Discrimination

In her first speech since assuming the post of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has urged nations to do more to tackle discrimination and inequality, which she said are the root causes of some of the worst forms of human-rights violations. Pillay spoke at the opening of the ninth regular session of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from the conference site in Geneva.

In her statement, Navi Pillay drew upon her personal experience as a member of a non-white minority in apartheid South Africa to highlight the pain and abuse that can result from discrimination. She told delegates attending the U.N. Human Rights Council of the human-rights abuses she confronted because of racial and gender discrimination.

"I grew up as a second-class citizen with no legal recourse. In my lifetime, however, I had the privilege to witness a complete transformation. Today, south Africa has one of the strongest constitutions in the world," said Pillay. "While the country struggles, as many countries do to turn legal rights into reality, watching the course of change over the span of a single decade and through a relatively peaceful evolution leads me to believe that solutions are possible."

The new High Commissioner is 67-years old. She is of Tamil descent and the daughter of a bus driver from a poor Indian section of Durban.

Drawing again upon her own experience, she recalled how she suffered as a girl of color growing up in Durban. She told the Council that gender discrimination was a root cause of violence against women and must be eliminated. She added that gender equality will contribute to development and security, as well as human rights.

"Genocide is the ultimate form of discrimination. We must all do everything in our power to prevent it," she said. "What I learned as a judge on the Rwanda Tribunal about the way in which a society can be shattered, and the way in which one human being can abuse another, will haunt me forever."

Pillay will preside over the work of the U.N. Council over the next three weeks. During this conference, the Council will follow up on previous special sessions that dealt with the situations in Darfur, Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza and on the global food crisis.

It also will discuss the human-rights situations in Burundi, Liberia and Somalia, and explore the issue of children and armed conflict.