The 74 years old, Indian-origin Navanetham Pillay, South Africa’s first non-white woman Judge of the High Court, who also served as president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and UN high commissioner for human rights, has been given France’s highest civilian honour, the ‘Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour).
French ambassador to South Africa Elisabeth Barbier said the award was recognition of Pillay’s work for the international justice system, human rights, and women’s rights.
Judge Pillay, the daughter of a bus driver, who qualified against great odds through community support, said she considered it a great honour to have received the coveted international award.
During her 28 years as a lawyer she defended anti-apartheid activists and helped expose the use of torture on political detainees. During late 60’s, she was the first non-white woman to open her own law practice in Natal Province, where she was born. In 1973 she won the right for prisoners on Robben Island, including President Nelson Mandela, to have legal representation. She co-founded Equality Now in South Africa and has worked with other organizations on issues relating to children, and domestic violence as well as a range of economic, social and cultural rights. She holds a master of law and a doctorate of juridical science from Harvard University.
She is currently the 16th commissioner of the Madrid-based International Commission against the Death Penalty, which works with the UN in promoting the abolition of capital punishment.