One of South Africa’s most esteemed jurists, Judge Navi Pillay who serves at the chairperson of the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry into the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem has called on the international community to back the commission and its work in the face of relentless attacks on the commission.
Speaking at her Research Group's Symposium hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal's School of Law, Pillay - who has sat on various international benches, including presiding over the Rwanda Genocide hearings and the Myanmar Genocide hearings for the International Court of Justice - said that ever since taking up the position of chair of the commission, she has faced all kinds of abuse, including being called biassed and being called anti-Semitic.
“It amounts to abuse, and we need your support to ensure that we are protected from this kind of abuse because, unlike the South African Commission's, the UN does not pay its commissioners. It's entirely a service we do,” she said.
“And we like it that way. It shows our independence from the issues. However, since we were abused in the General Assembly by the Israeli ambassador, I decided we're going to make that public, which we did. We made a huge storm of protest before the world press and wrote to the Security Council, and we said, ‘You created us; you want us to come and report to you; then make sure we have a safe place to report that,” Judge Pillay added.
Judge Pillay acknowledged, however, the complexity and sensitivity of the commission's mandate.
She highlighted the commission's commitment to impartiality, saying, "We are independent UN commissioners; we have to be impartial and not take sides".
However, she also noted the inherent asymmetry in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, describing it as a situation involving "one occupier, the oppressor, and the other, the occupied, the oppressed".
Judge Pillay elaborated on the commission's efforts to gather evidence and testimonies, acknowledging the challenges posed by restricted access to certain areas.
Despite these hurdles, the commission successfully published four detailed reports, with the most significant one released in October 2022. This report identified the root cause of the conflict as the occupation itself, deemed unlawful due to its perpetual nature.
Judge Pillay highlighted the role of academic research and civil society, particularly the youth, in informing the commission's work.
She commended the input of various experts in shaping the commission's understanding of issues like unlawful occupation.
A significant part of her speech was dedicated to discussing the commission's experiences in engaging with both Israeli and Palestinian communities.
Judge Pillay stressed the importance of empathy and understanding for all victims, regardless of their nationality or background.
Reflecting on her tenure as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Judge Pillay addressed the accusations of bias and anti-Semitism levelled against the commission.
She firmly rejected these allegations, asserting the commission's commitment to an objective and fair inquiry.
The financial and political challenges faced by the commission were also a focal point.
Judge Pillay highlighted the stark disparity in resources and support available to various UN missions and underscored the need for moral and political support to carry out their mandate effectively.
She reiterated the importance of continued engagement and support from the international community, particularly from countries like South Africa.
She urged the audience, especially the youth, to maintain hope and continue advocating for justice and human rights.