The world looks to South Africa for moral leadership

22 September 2014

Navi Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, delivered the 15th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture to a packed Jameson Hall on 11 November. In her view, South Africa has done much to promote human rights, but should not rest on its laurels.

South Africa has a "principled voice", originating from its fight against apartheid, which influences the United Nations (UN) human rights agenda. It should therefore do more to uphold these fundamental rights.

This was the message from Navi Pillay, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, when she delivered the 15th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture to a packed Jameson Hall on 11 September 2014. In her speech, titled Advancing human rights in South Africa and the world, she reflected on her eight-year tenure as the United Nation's highest official concerned with human rights.

She also served as a judge in the International Criminal Court, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the KwaZulu-Natal High Court.

Pillay retired from her position at the UN a mere eleven days before delivering the lecture, in which she added her "voice to the worldwide acclaim for [Biko] and his courageous contribution to the liberation of South Africa". She praised Biko for his part in dismantling apartheid and informing human rights norms and standards.

In a tribute to the struggle icon, UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price explained in his welcome address that the lecture series not only commemorates Biko's life and death, "[It] celebrates his bravery and leadership as an activist; and perhaps even more importantly, the substance of his thoughts as one of South Africa's foremost political leaders and thinkers. For there have been many heroes and martyrs, but Steve Biko stands out because of the leadership he provided in the realm of ideas."

Voice for the voiceless

Pillay expressed concern that human rights are still not universally respected or "viewed as indivisible and interrelated". She argued that this leaves the most vulnerable people - namely women, children, minorities and migrants - open to abuse.

"I am troubled by more and more countries passing restrictive laws curtailing the activities of NGOs. Today NGOs are facing unprecedented challenges, including these restrictive laws, reprisals and lack of funding. Human rights defenders, journalists and aid workers come under attack and face imprisonment because of their work. These are disturbing signs of regression," Pillay warned.

Describing her former office as the "voice of the voiceless", she asserted that such organisations and individuals "inject the lifeblood into human rights: they are the promoters of change, the people who ring the alarm bell about abuse".

Human rights challenges

Her greatest challenge as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was to convince governments "to implement the legal framework they themselves set, and deliver on the undertakings they made to protect and promote the human rights of all". During her time at the UN she travelled to 79 different countries to bring this about.

The ANC was founded on human rights and democratic principles. Pillay recalled that shortly after the ruling party came to power in 1994, a number of human rights treaties were ratified by the South African government. Furthermore, resolutions supported by South Africa included the one against Israeli occupation of Palestine; another for economic, social and cultural rights that aim to eliminate poverty; and the first UN resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity. She pointed out that it is unfortunate that South Africa has not yet ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, one of two major human rights treaties.

"South Africa can do more and should not lend support to decisions that conflict with our constitutional values. This includes recent resolutions in the Human Rights Council on the right to protest, reprisals against human-rights defenders, and protection of the family, to name a few.

"South Africa has sided with those who invoke the so-called non-interference in the internal affairs of a country to block scrutiny of serious human rights violations – These positions recall the apartheid government's response to criticism of its policy of institutionalisation of race. People - not only in Africa, but all over the world - look to South Africa for moral leadership," she concluded.

What part can the individual play?

Pillay urged her audience to emulate Biko when confronted with human rights violations. "The action that each of us can and should take against human rights violations wherever they occur is as Biko himself urged: not to be a spectator but a participant.

"Just as individuals around the world cared about anti-apartheid activists and human rights defenders, like Biko, and demanded that their governments support our struggle for freedom, so we should watch out for the safety and freedom of human rights defenders, journalists and NGOs who are facing arrests, detention and even death for their critical work," she said.

She advised that it was imperative that South Africans pay attention to what is happening in the international arena, because "decisions are made in [their] name". She encouraged students to concern themselves with what is happening in the rest of the world and to seek out information about human rights violations. She added that education is key in preventing such violations.

Story by Abigail Calata. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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