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Praise for Navi Pillay as New UN Human Rights Chief


Reaction in South Africa has been positive to Navi Pillay's expected approval as the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. For example, a former colleague, Durban attorney Zubeda Seedat, talks about Pillay's early years as a practicing human rights attorney.

"She used to go regularly to Robben Island (prison) to meet with (Nelson) Mandela and the other people that were incarcerated there. And won some landmark cases on human rights matters. She was always very involved in human rights matters…. We were all subjected to separate laws and all the apartheid machinery. And so that must have had a profound impact on her. And I think she is ideally suited for the job that she is now going to take after she finishes at …the International Criminal Court at The Hague," Seedat says.

Asked what the early years as an attorney might have taught Pillay, she says, "I think it must have left an indelible imprint on her mind of how important it was to pursue these laws and to pursue justice and to fight for justice…. The other thing that she was very involved was in the pursuit of gender crimes…. At a local level she was involved in starting a desk for abused women and giving them advice…. We didn't have domestic violence laws at that time, but she was quick enough to see that there was a great need to assist women."

Both Pillay and Seedat are women of color, adding another obstacle during the apartheid years. "It was difficult, but we doggedly went on with it because we knew that our leaders were incarcerated and there was work to be done. So we just went on doing it. It was difficult. We had the security branch…against us, but there was a commitment to see it through. And she indeed has that commitment. And I can see her in this role now and not shying away from matters that are important. She will be very forthright and able to take a stand on issues," says Seedat.

She says Judge Pillay has a very dry sense of humor and is gracious but is also a no nonsense, no frills individual.

Also praising Pillay is Jody Kollapen, the head of South Africa's Human Rights Commission.

"As a South African I'm very excited and honored that a South African will hold the position. But as a human rights activist and at the head of the South African Human Rights Commission, I am deeply excited that someone with a commitment to human rights, with a commitment to equality, will be holding that post as well. So, yes, I think that we're all quite pleased," he says.

Kollapen comments on whether it matters if the UN human rights chief is a person of color.

"I think in the broader scheme of things it doesn't make such a big difference because she is going to be really doing the work at an international level. And I think her color and agenda shouldn't be a factor insofar as her work over the years and her current commitment have demonstrated an ability on her part certainly to be able to relate to human rights in the broadest possible sense. But at the same time I think many South Africans of color would be pleased even more so in that it's a demonstration that our own transformation as a nation on attempts to deal with the legacy of our own past is playing itself out in this wonderful way," he says.

The head of South Africa's Human Rights Commission says he expects Pillay take on such issues as Darfur, Sri Lanka and the Middle East. He also expects her to address the food crisis and global warming and how they may affect human rights.