Iran has very high rate of executions: Navanethem Pillay
The Former UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and the woman who has not only made South Africa proud, but is also globally recognised as role-model by millions across the world. Navanethem Pillay or Navee as she is popularly known as, is a South African jurist who served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to 2014.
A South African of Indian origin, who was born in Durban, became the first non-white woman judge of the High Court of South Africa in 1995. Back in the days as a non-white lawyer under the Apartheid regime, she was not allowed to enter a judge’s chambers.
During her 28 years as a lawyer in South Africa, she defended anti-Apartheid activists and helped expose the use of torture and poor conditions of political prisoners like Madiba himself. In 1973, she won the right for political prisoners onRobben Island, including Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers. She co-founded the Advice Desk for the Abused and ran a shelter for victims of domestic violence. As a member of the Women’s National Coalition, she contributed to the inclusion in South Africa’s Constitution of an equality clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation. In 1992, she co-founded the international women’s rights group Equality Now. She has also served as a judge of the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
This exceptional 73-year-old, in a brief rendezvous with The Oslo Times Editor-in-Chief, Mr. Hatef Mokhtar spoke about the Human Rights situation across the globe, the importance of conducting such Human Rights Conferences in the developing world and a whole lot more.
The excerpts below give us a brief insight into her views and life-long experience as a lawyer a well as a human right defender:
Can you tell me a little about this Conference in Morroco?
Before retiring as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights two and a half months earlier, I was here in Morocco on an official mission in March this year. It was when I was invited for attending the second World Forum on Human Rights (WFHR). But, as I was going to retire, I was reluctant to come. But they wanted me here because of the experience I had gained in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for six years. I think that it is important for developing countries in the South to hold such events. Two years back, it was Brazil that organized the first WFHR two years ago, now its Morocco and next in line is Argentina. In one way it addresses the suspicion of some people in the South that portray human rights as Western creature and principles that do not fit in their culture and traditions. Along with this, people in the South are suspicious of human rights because they feel that developed countries only focus on civil and political rights and not on economic, social and cultural rights and the rights to development. These are priorities for developing countries. You have the African Charter for Human and Peoples Rights so they feel that the UN Charter is for individual rights and does not support the rights of communities, so I appreciate and welcome holding of the conference right here. They had seven thousand participants mainly from civil society all over the world, fairly many seasoned human rights activists, human rights defenders and what was their total input? They want the same rights as everybody else, so they believe in the universal declaration of human rights, they believe that Human Rights are universal, indivisible and interrelated. You can’t just have one right, you need to have all the rights.
The same problems have occurred all over the world like women who are beaten, raped and sexually abused, and the indigenous groups across the world that have been discriminated. So the complaints presented at the WFHR are the same as presented in any other world conferences or the UN conferences, that I have attended. But there is a need to be sensitive towards their concerns and we need to spell out what we mean by universal declaration of human rights and why people want equality, democracy and justice.
What are the main challenges we face in the path of achieving human rights today?
Firstly the global challenge is that despite the fact that we have a very good framework of rights of standards and principles drawn up by all the countries of the world in the UN, these are not being implemented. In some countries, the level of implementation is much worse than others. But many people in these countries will tell you that they prefer to live in the Scandanavian countries in Norway and Sweden. Why do they say that? Because people are safe in Norway and Sweden, there isn’t conflict, there isn’t repression of human rights. So all people across the world aspire for these things that we all cherish— equality, fairness, fundamental freedoms, justice and democracy.
There are some regimes in the world like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan that are completely totalitarian. There is no freedom of expression, speech and basic human rights and the regime punishes people unnecessarily and such violations occur on a daily basis. People in those countries are very much oppressed. What do you think will be the future of such regimes and what kind of steps can the UN take for protecting the rights of people in those countries?
I am very concerned about the human rights conditions of the people in all disputed territories. Firstly, as they are stateless, who will look after their human rights? Europe should do much more to settle these old problems. You know I have been to Transnistria, Georgia, Cyprus and Turkey. Such problems need to be addressed, they don’t resolve on their own.The African Union Charter is much different. It allows the African Union to intervene and negotiate on behalf of them. They did that in Madagascar. For instance, they invited the assistance of my office. So, we need to understand that they have a different charter, which enables them to intervene and to help and resolve disputes. In Europe this is missing. When we are speaking of developing countries i.e. poor countries, with poor human rights delivery records, they are not only in the southern hemisphere, they are there in Western and Eastern Europe as well, Belarus being an example.
What is the human rights situation like in Russia, especially under the Putin administration?
I don’t want to go into political questions. I am more concerned about human rights. But I am very concerned that Russia has passed laws that restrict NGO’s, even when I was there on a mission. Even though the media is fairly free, the public have very strong opinions. I met many NGOs and they complained that President Putin has repressive laws that forbid them from receiving funds from outside. They have to declare that they have foreign agents in order to receive funds. What could be a bigger insult than that? These are some of the problems they raised with me along with problems of registration, freedom to protest. They are definitely feeling the repression. I raised these matters in Russia. I looked at their draft statuette and found that it is just too broad. They told me it was to address terrorism and Chechnyan terrorists. Whatever it is, it is just too broad to umbrella them to legitimate the freedom fighters and those who want to protect the human rights advancements of everyone.The other thing is the problem of huge inequality between the rich and poor. I met the mothers of some soldiers and they spoke of the hierarchy in the military that has officer class and working class of soldiers. The mothers showed me pictures of torture of these young recruits and these conditions are not being addressed despite the ill-treatment and very harsh conditions of these soldiers. Definitely there has to be greater respect for the freedom of protests and opinion and participation of the people. There has to be access to justice. I have spoken to the Chief Justice and justices of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. Many of the decisions made by the judges in Moscow are being reversed by the European court of human rights because they are convinced that there is less access to justice and there are human rights violations in Russia. Internationally, many countries follow the model of Russia, and thereby unfortunately take up the position of non-interference in internal affairs and sovereignty of other countries, and opine that they made a mistake in supporting the military intervention in Libya and term it as a disaster and use it as example for not intervening in Syria.In my view Russia is one of the five big powers that created the United Nations framework of Human Right standards. It should ensure that every member state abides with those standards. So, when President such as Assad of Syria kills 200,000 people, it makes no sense for political games and agendas to be played out. Russia is sending a wrong signal. Its signal should have been that it supports human rights and in protecting people’s lives.
There is a massive oppression of media and executions of people happening in Iran, what do you have to say about a regime like Iran?
Many of the recommendations that came in the periodic review to the Universal Human Rights Council points exactly towards situations and concerns of the existence of very high rate of executions, unfair trials, public executions, repression of women’s rights and yet if you look at their past history, human rights is something that they should celebrate, instead there are numerous restriction against people, clearly they don’t respect themselves and dissent dialogue as a government.
As someone with enormous experience in the human rights sector and an inspirational figure to so many of us, what message would you like to give to human right defenders across the world?
My message is of course we are concerned about the current crisis and the conflicts but they are happening in less than ten countries in the world, all the other countries are trying. They get a great deal of help from the United Nations and Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to make the change, to change all laws, bring the laws up to standard in conformity with universally accepted standards. So, a great deal is being done on the ground. We should position ourselves on how we the civil societies and human right activists can help governments, who are willing to take the road of progress and change. It is easy to just criticize and complain about problems, but it has not taken us anywhere so far. So lets now get in there and come up with strategies.
Even the P5 and the Security Council once said to me they don’t know, what to do, as they don’t have enforcement powers. They went to South Sudan, for instance and saw these two leaders fighting. They condemned it but what more could they do than that? This is where civil society should play a role. Nothing would have advanced so far if it had been not for the civil society to intervene. It was them who demanded justice and end to impunity. We have the Yugoslav Tribunal in Bosnia, the Rwanda Tribunal in Rwanda and now we have the world’s first permanent international criminal court. It’s them, the civil society, who demanded of UN to establish the UN High Commission of Human Rights to be the voice of the voiceless. So there is a great deal that civil society can do.
Finally I always give the example of my own country South Africa. We truly benefited from the support we got from the entire international community to end institutionalized racism in South Africa. I never thought that I would see a constitutionalized democracy in South Africa in my lifetime that is how hopeless it was. The entire legal system was used to keep us down and we lost many freedom fighters and as you know the most famous of them all was Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison. I was a lawyer who defended these activists and we never got an acquittal in the courtroom because things were always weighed against us and it looked so hopeless. Yet it was possible to hold a dialogue and come up with a solution. It might not be perfect because there is amnesty given to people who perpetrated crime against us. And, President Mandela had to agree sharing power for a short while with the representative of the previous regime. So, I give that as a powerful example that change is possible, but it can only happen with the very active involvement of the people themselves. You can’t look to others to help you. You have to do the groundwork for your own freedom and the way to do it is to adopt the universal standards and norms and say that these are the norms that we want.
And that is why I am very hopeful about WFHR, because out of Vienna Human Rights Conference, and out of Beijing’s Women’s Right Conference, there is something developed for the better and we need this in developing states of the South as well and I am hoping that this kind of massive engagement with civil society should advance the process here for us.
After this we are going to Rabat to join the international parliamentarian union and I made a note here that the parliamentarians also made a presence here at the conference. We need the parliamentarians to be the guardians of values and protect the people. In some cases they do and in some they don’t. While I am here in Morocco its interesting that the head of state the King has come up with a reform package but he does not have the support of the parliament here to implement it. Some parliamentarians still put up questions like what are human rights, where do they come from along with denying giving rights to women stating that it is against their tradition.This is just one of the examples. I went to an African country whose president has been in power for three decades. I was raising the question of forced and early marriages with a minister there and she informed me that the parliament had endorsed a reform bill to address such issues. The reform bill proposes to fix marriageable age at 18 instead of 11, 12,14 and restricts forced and early marriages of girl. But the President has not signed the law since the past 19 years. What the parliament passes as law, it works both ways but who suffers in the end are the people. In some cases we need to bring such cases out in the open.
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