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What's not to like about the UN's new rights commissioner?

Special to Globe and Mail Update

The world has a new United Nations high commissioner for human rights, a job that comes with built-in controversy. Right at the start, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's choice for the post, Navanethem Pillay, a South African judge now sitting on the International Criminal Court, seems to have caught a lot of people off-guard and provoked some unexpected reactions.

Judge Pillay, 67, is something of a star among international legal experts but was not widely known outside her home country, the UN and the war-crimes tribunals and courts. Beholden to no major human-rights organizations, she was criticized by some in the field for not being "accessible" to that community or not being a more outspoken rights advocate. (She says that was not her role as a judge.) In Washington, where George W. Bush's administration seems to have been prodded into a last-minute scramble to try to derail the appointment, it was discovered that she was — gasp! — a feminist.

That Mr. Ban held firm to his choice in the face of U.S. anxiety, if not actual opposition, is both interesting and important. By one measure, his ability to proceed with this appointment after nearly a week's delay may reflect a diminution of Washington's clout within the always politicized UN system, especially in the area of human rights. Mr. Bush's administration not only refused to join the recently created Human Rights Council, but also worked actively to undermine the International Criminal Court, even removing the United States from the list of signers of the treaty that created it. And then there is Guantanamo, a target of criticism by Canadian Louise Arbour, who was Judge Pillay's predecessor as human-rights commissioner.

Mr. Ban's steadfastness may also indicate that at this moment of multiple crises on that continent, Africa — not just South Africa but also the larger African Union — cannot be trifled with. Africa, which strongly supported Mr. Ban's own election, may have trumped U.S. concerns. That's something of a watershed. Will Mr. Ban, thought by many diplomats to be too close to Washington, be emboldened to open a little more distance?

Various reports have indicated that Washington's concern was that Judge Pillay was the candidate of South African President Thabo Mbeki, and as such, she might share his unwillingness to take a strong position against renegades such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. That seems unlikely, given her track record for independence. But the real snag in the White House may have been the campaign waged by the anti-abortion lobby, with the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute at the forefront. Somewhere along the line, the anti-abortionists appear to have "discovered" that Judge Pillay was a co-founder of Equality Now, a New York-based nongovernmental organization that helps women around the world learn about and fight for their rights. The organization has played a leading role in supporting African women's campaigns against female genital mutilation and has battled successfully to stop sex tourism in New York, among other projects. It is not known as a pro-abortion lobby.

In any case, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, told reporters that the charges levelled against Judge Pillay had been checked out. "We didn't find substance to the allegations," he said July 23, as Mr. Ban made the South African's appointment official.

Mr. Khalilzad's attitude throughout the mini-crisis was noteworthy. From the start, he insisted that the choice of a human-rights commissioner was the Secretary General's to make, and he seemed unwilling to join the Bushites who go on the offensive whenever women's reproductive rights come up at the UN. These are some of the same people who have backed a boycott of U.S. contributions to the UN Population Fund since 2002 and who side with the Vatican and conservative Muslim countries on international women's issues in the Economic and Social Council.

Washington had its own slate of candidates for high commissioner — assembled hastily, by most accounts. One of them, an Asian woman, has told a human-rights activist in New York that in an interview with U.S. officials she was asked about her views on abortion, which she refused to denounce. She never heard back. None of the American candidates made the UN short list. Runners up to Judge Pillay were Juan Mendez of Argentina, a human-rights lawyer who has been the secretary-general's special adviser on the prevention of genocide, and Hina Jilani, a Pakistani lawyer who, with her sister, is a leader in fighting for women's rights and civil liberties.

What is strange is that the qualifications Judge Pillay brings to the high commissioner's office were not applauded by the Bush team, which prides itself on having leaned on the Security Council in June to pass a resolution reiterating the doctrine now enshrined in law that rape and other forms of sexual abuse are recognized crimes of war. Before and during her time as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Judge Pillay was among those who pushed to press such charges because rape had figured horrifically in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. In September, 1998, the Rwanda tribunal became the first of the war-crimes courts to punish sexual violence in conflict. It convicted a local government official, Jean-Paul Akayesu, of rape as an act of genocide. Is a jurist's view on abortion to be given a higher priority than this?

Navanethem Pillay is a woman for the era in other ways too. Born into an ethnic Tamil family in Durban, she grew up in a minority community no less victimized by apartheid than black South Africans. The daughter of a bus driver and an unschooled mother, she rose through the education system in South Africa to a place at Harvard Law School, where she took two degrees before returning to Durban and becoming the first woman to open a law firm in the province of Natal. She was known for her defence of political prisoners.

After Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, she became the first non-white female justice appointed to the South African Supreme Court. A quiet, steady and focused lawyer and judge, she epitomizes the concept, so often honoured in the breach at the UN, that the talents of women are key to development. With the right tools, including better education and more reproductive health services, women can reduce poverty and slow the spread of HIV-AIDS across the global South. But women, especially in Africa and Asia, need to know their rights and find ways to raise their status in society. Judge Pillay, who understands this, will be there to support them.

Barbara Crossette, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, was South Asia bureau chief from 1988 to 1991 and UN bureau chief from 1994 to 2001.

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