South African Lawyer Now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

A Harvard-educated judge from South Africa will take over as the United Nations' top advocate for human rights after the General Assembly voted Monday to confirm her nomination.

As U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay will take over a Geneva-based office with almost 1,000 employees and a budget approaching $150 million. She replaces Louise Arbour, a former Supreme Court judge in Canada who had served since 2004, starting in September.

About half the office's staff are field-based, monitoring human rights and providing help in about 50 countries including those with armed conflicts such as Iraq and Sudan. Arbour had expanded those field operations, but did not draw attention to it.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who nominated Pillay to the five-year post, said he was gratified by the General Assembly's endorsement.

The 67-year-old jurist has been serving as an appeals chamber judge with the Dutch-based International Criminal Court since 2003.

In 1967, Pillay became the first woman to set up a law practice in South Africa's Natal province, breaking the gender barrier.

She defended apartheid opponents and in 1995 was appointed a judge on South Africa's High Court, which hears civil and criminal cases. During the apartheid era, Pillay, who is of Tamil descent, was once barred from entering a judge's chamber because of the color of her skin.

She also helped develop the legal basis for prosecuting rape as a war crime while serving as a judge on the U.N. war crimes tribunal for Rwanda.

"Judge Pillay's advocacy for human rights has not been limited to South Africa," South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo told the General Assembly. The job, he said, "requires a person of high moral standing and personal integrity" and she has those qualities.

"The independence and fearlessness that Judge Pillay has demonstrated assures us of her commitment to put the individual at the center of the human rights agenda," he added.

Some nations, including the United States, and human rights advocates had questioned some of her views and whether she could match Arbour's outspokenness in condemning human rights abusers.

But advocates also noted the 192-nation General Assembly's unanimous endorsement of Pillay included the support of nations such as Belarus, China, Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe that have been widely criticized for human rights violations.

"I hope Pillay quickly uses this outpouring of support for her to insist that these same governments live up to their human rights commitments," said Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch's executive director. "And I hope that these governments that so enthusiastically welcome Pillay will be as welcoming when she insists that they stop human rights violations."

Though Pillay will oversee the U.N.'s human rights activities, her office also works with a separate entity, the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council, that is supposed to investigate the status of rights in various countries and prepare reports holding them accountable for how they treat their citizens.

The council, also based in Geneva, was created in 2006 over U.S. opposition to replace a previous commission that had been seen as overly politicized.