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South African Judge Honored With Women's Rights Prize - 2003-12-11

A South African judge and a Rwandan group have been honored for their efforts to promote women’s rights. They are the first recipients of the Peter Gruber Foundation Women’s Rights Prize.

The Foundation says the Women’s Rights Prize will be awarded annually to “those who have made fundamental discoveries – or have taken courageous stands to further the quality of life and the knowledge of people around the world.”

The first recipients are Navi Pillay, presiding judge at the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda and the national network of women’s groups in Rwanda, known as Network Pro Femmes Twese Hamwe or “Women Together for Women.” The network helps women who are survivors of sexual violence and the 1994 genocide. Each recipient has been awarded a gold medal and will share a cash award of 200-thousand dollars.

Judge Pillay spoke to VOA about her career and efforts to promote women’s rights.

"What we’ve achieved now is we have brought it out into the open. So, there’s more focus on the inequalities. And I think we’ve reached a stage where women will no longer tolerate this old traditional position."

Under Apartheid in South Africa, she began her career as a lawyer, a black lawyer.

"I went to white offices for the obligatory internship that we had to serve. And they wouldn’t take me for the reason that they cannot have a situation where a black person would be giving instructions to a white type. So that was a racial factor. The sex discrimination was I was newly married and they said what if you fall pregnant? Meaning that was a huge disaster in the workplace. (laugh) And poverty was, well, was your father a lawyer? What kind of work would you bring to the law practice."

Judge Pillay eventually started her own law practice, something her male colleagues described as “presumptuous.” She learned a lot “in the trenches,” as she put it.

Nevertheless, she has a humble reaction to receiving the Peter Gruber Foundation Women’s Rights Prize.

"You know, I might be tempted to tell you, oh yeah, I broke all these barriers. But when I listen to my young adult daughters they think that I was as bad as the next woman, who said things in public but behaved as a doormat and allowed myself to be dominated within the marriage, for instance. There’s hope then in the advancement made by each generation."

In her career as a judge, two decisions stand out and have received international recognition. In 1998, she ruled that rape was a war crime, a crime against humanity.

"Sexual Violence against women has occurred in every conflict situation. But there has never been a prosecution. People have told me and I tend to agree that it’s because it was never taken as a crime. It was taken more as a perpetrator seeing the violation of women as spoils of war. You take the goods of the enemy. You take his cattle; you take his women."

Recently, in another landmark case, she was the presiding judge when the Rwanda tribunal convicted three media executives of genocide. That is, using radio broadcasts and newspapers to encourage people to murder. It was the first case of its kind since the Nuremburg trials following World War Two. As a defense, the accused claimed free expression and press freedom. The judgment in the case was 361 pages long.

"So this judgment sets out that freedom of the press comes with responsibility. And that certain kinds of speech do not fall in the prohibited category, they are in fact encouraged by all civilized nations. And that is, we expect the media to be critical of the government. We expect the media in times of war to call upon citizens to form civil defense units and protect the country. All that is permissible speech."

The tribunal found, however, that some of the broadcasts and writings showed a “pattern and a buildup with the goal of whipping up hatred.” She says, “The media have the power to create and destroy human values. And those who control the media are accountable for its consequences.”

Navi Pillay is credited with raising the status and resources of the Rwanda Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania. The court had not received the same attention, personnel or money as the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Judge Pillay now also sits on the new International Criminal Court.