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Former UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay Delivers Inaugural Handa Center Lecture on Human Rights

Navi Pillay and David Cohen seated on stage
May 11 2015

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Events, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay addressed an audience of about 150 Stanford students, faculty, staff, and community members for the Handa Center’s inaugural lecture on human rights at Cemex Auditorium on May 5.

Handa Center Director David Cohen introduced the speaker, highlighting how welcoming and supportive Stanford has been since the center joined the Stanford Global Studies division last year.

“We are so pleased to be able to offer guests of Ms. Pillay’s distinction to the vibrant and intellectually curious Stanford community through our lecture series,” he said.

In her address, Pillay reflected on her personal trajectory from being the first woman to start a law practice in her native South African province more than 40 years ago to attending the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna to serving six years as high commissioner.

Highlighting achievements and challenges from her tenure at the UN, Pillay shared personal anecdotes about times when politics threatened to undermine principle, but she always worked hard to uphold her values.

“In such a position, you have to respect the fact that if you are ordering other people and states to obey certain principles, you have to begin there yourself,” she said.

Pillay built a legacy at the UN for addressing discrimination on all grounds, including against previously overlooked groups, at times drawing the ire of developed nations that objected to having their treatment of minorities scrutinized. Moreover, she emphasized the need to focus not just on political and civil rights, but also economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to development.

“You can’t actually grade human rights and say one is more important than the other,” Pillay said. “You can’t exercise the civil right to freedom of expression if you don’t have food.”

Additional achievements included placing caste-based discrimination in India on the agenda at the Human Rights Council for the first time and using the principles of equality and non-discrimination to address LGBTQ rights. Pillay also addressed the UN Security Council more times than all her predecessor high commissioners combined.

One challenge Pillay underlined was the troubling trend of shrinking democratic space resulting from the suppression of civil society voices and journalists. She further reminded audiences of the importance of looking at human rights violations as warning signs of even more serious outcomes, drawing attention to the Syrian conflict.

“This is why the work of the Handa Center is so important in providing not only research materials on these subjects, but being a watchful eye caring for human rights defenders all over the world,” Pillay said.

Audience members offered dozens of questions on a variety of topics for the speaker, from alternative models of transitional justice to the role of private philanthropy in the field human rights.

In response to an inquiry about how best to pursue a career in the field, Pillay told students they must “jump in!”

“You have the skills and opportunities so you just need to help others articulate what it is that they want,” she said.

Students commented that they left the event feeling deeply engaged and inspired.

“Navi Pillay spoke with the precision and warmth that can only be expected of someone who has dedicated her career to upholding human rights,” said Stanford Freshman Julian Bava. “As the former High Commissioner might say, she definitely ‘articulated’ her message!”

Click here for photos from the lecture and here to read about the Stanford Global Studies Student Dinner with Navi Pillay on May 4.