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.
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 in The Hague and elsewhere. Beholden to no major human rights organizations, she was criticized by some in the field for not being “accessible” to that community or a more outspoken rights advocate. (She counters that was not her role as a judge.) In Washington, where the Bush 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 Secretary General Ban held firm to his choice in the face of US 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 American clout within the always politicized UN system, especially in the area of human rights. The Bush 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 Guantánamo, a target of criticism by the Canadian Judge Louise Arbour, who was Pillay’s predecessor as human rights commissioner. Ban’s steadfastness may also indicate that at this moment of multiple crises on that continent, Africa–not only South Africa but also the larger African Union–cannot be trifled with. Africa, which strongly supported Ban’s election as secretary general, may have trumped US concerns. That’s something of a watershed. Will 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 Pillay was the candidate of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and as such she might share his unwillingness to take a strong position against Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan or other renegades. 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 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 local 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.