In a lecture hall thousands of miles away from South Africa, Judge Navanethem Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, addressed the University community in a public lecture titled “From South Africa to Rwanda and Syria.”
Though far from the sugar plantations her grandfather worked on as an indentured laborer in South Africa, Pillay spent the last few days on campus, engaging with several student groups for the University of Michigan Law School’s 2015 William W. Bishop Jr. Lecture in International Law.
On Sept. 29, she spoke to undergraduates in the Human Rights Initiative as well as a number of law students in various organizations. Wednesday morning she met with the Law School’s human trafficking clinic before delivering a speech in the afternoon.
“I love the fact that students from other disciplines, like engineering and economics, also attend this, not just law students. That’s very good because human rights concerns everyone,” Pillay said.
As a minority in both race and gender, Pillay said she faced many obstacles. However, her real journey began when her father, a bus driver, and her seven siblings struggled to satisfy their hunger — both for food and education.
With schoolteachers walking door to door, the poor community in which Pillay grew up raised funds to send “the girl with potential” to a university.
“We were all victims of discrimination and deprivation,” Pillay said. “So when I became a lawyer against all odds, it was not a singular achievement.”
When she began practicing as an attorney, gender, race and economic class proved to be growing challenges for Pillay, especially in the climate of apartheid. According to Pillay, after law school, law firms refused to hire her because white secretaries could not work for a black woman. These adversities led to Pillay starting her own law firm in 1967, the first woman to do so in South Africa’s Natal Province.
She has also served as a judge on the International Criminal Court, judge president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and acting judge of the High Court in South Africa, appointed by Nelson Mandela himself.
“It’s an honor to come hear her speak,” third-year Law student Daniela Tagtachian said. “It’s always good to hear the story of a woman who led such a distinguished life. It’s particularly inspiring hearing a woman speak about such great things.”
In addition to protecting women’s rights and promoting the cause as a respected female role model and co-founder of Equality Now, an international women’s rights organization, Pillay also spoke of growing unrest in the world. She described the last decade as having the greatest number of wars and conflicts in different states at one time.
Pillay also discussed the crisis in Syria and the growing number of refugees. She expressed concern about the treatment of migrants in Europe, explaining few states have adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers.
“It’s a tragic failure for the cause of human rights … I do hope the people of the United States will direct more of these asylum seekers to their country,” she said.
After her retirement, Pillay has continued to dedicate her life to the betterment of humanity by targeting the next generation. She has visited universities around the world, sharing her experiences with students.
“I hope that (students) will be caring adults, compassionate adults and care for others,” Pillay said. “Many students I know focus on their careers, and that’s important too. But I hope when they leave here, they will be inspired to care and do something to protect the human rights of others as well.”
The Law School invited Pillay with the hope of inspiring its students and exposing them to issues beyond the Ann Arbor campus.
“We want the students to hear about the problems in the world regarding human rights,” International Law Prof. Steven Ratner said. “We want them to hear about how they can make a difference. How one person can make a difference.”
Students said they valued this unique opportunity and felt connected to the issues facing people around the world.
“I feel very grateful our school can pull in such influential and important speakers,” Public Policy senior Jessica Eller said. “It is a blessing to go to a school like the University of Michigan that can attract such prestigious figures.”