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UN Human Rights Commission Welcomes Nomination of S. African Jurist for Top Job

The Human Rights Office in Geneva says it welcomes the nomination of South African jurist, Navanethem Pillay as the new High Commissioner and looks forward to her leading the organization, which is growing in scope and in importance. Her nomination, which was announced Thursday by the U.N. secretary-general, will be presented for approval by the General Assembly on Monday. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The post of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is not for the faint-hearted. But, Navi Pillay, one of South Africa's leading female jurists, appears to be eminently qualified to bear the heat that comes with the job.

Past High Commissioners have been roundly criticized and vilified after pointing fingers at governments that have been accused of torture, disappearances and other gross violations of human rights. But, they also have been commended for speaking out on behalf of the victims.

Pillay has an impressive list of accomplishments. U.N. Human Rights Spokesman, Rupert Colville, says it shows she is clearly qualified.

"As a member of a non-white minority in apartheid South Africa, and as a front-line grassroots lawyer who acted as a defense attorney for many anti-apartheid campaigners and trades unionists, Ms. Pillay has direct personal experience of many of the issues that a High Commissioner for Human rights covers under her mandate...She has also been involved with a number of other organizations working on issues relating to children, detainees, victims of torture, victims of domestic violence as well as a range of other economic, social and cultural rights," he said.

Pillay is 67 years old. She is of Tamil descent, the daughter of a bus driver from a poor Indian section of Durban, who has marked out an outstanding career as a champion of human rights and justice.

She was the first woman of color in Natal province to start her own firm. She has won victories for those imprisoned under apartheid, including her husband. She has been a leading advocate for women's rights.

Colville notes Judge Pillay has served on two of the most important international criminal courts. She has spent eight years with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, including four years as its President.

And, for the past five years, he says Pillay has served on the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

"Both of these courts deal with the extreme end of the human rights spectrum-war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and they are at the cutting edge of the development of international law in these areas." he said. "Obviously, judges - and especially court presidents - in the international arena, have to function in a highly complex and politicized environment, as does the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. So in that respect, Ms. Pillay is exceptionally well-qualified-with a career path quite similar to that of her predecessor Louise Arbour."

Canadian Judge, Louise Arbour, also served on national courts and as Prosecutor for both the Yugoslavia and Rwanda Tribunals. She quit her functions as High Commissioner at the end of June after years of service.

Navi Pillay is expected to assume her post as High Commissioner on September 1. The office she will lead will have almost one thousand employees and a budget of nearly $120 million.