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Former UN official awarded O'Connor prize for human rights advocacy

group of people posing at awards ceremony
November 21, 2014

A former South African judge who fought against apartheid and champions international human rights has been honored with the first O’Connor Justice Prize.

Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, was presented the award at a dinner on Nov. 14, in Phoenix. The O’Connor Justice Prize was established by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. The prize recognizes a person who, like retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has made extraordinary contributions to the rule of law, justice and human rights.

“My first reaction was ‘How wonderful to have an award named after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor,'” Pillay said. “You don’t do this for the awards, but I think this award honoring people who work for justice is very important.”

Pillay served as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to August 2014. Prior to her work at the U.N., Pillay was the first woman of color to sit on the High Court of South Africa. She has also served as a judge on the International Criminal Court and as president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

“Navanethem Pillay is the embodiment of the spirit of the O’Connor Justice Prize,” said Doug Sylvester, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “Her personal battle with apartheid and her work on the international stage to bring dignity and respect to people of all nations by enforcing the rule of law is inspiring.”

Pillay said it is important to understand that the rule of law can break down catastrophically, as it has in Iraq and in incremental incidents, such as the rioting that followed the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

While Pillay said the U.S. needs to create a plan to deal with racism, she added that the nation is a reliable “champion of human rights.”

“(The U.S.) was very helpful to me and every other member on the Commission for Human Rights,” Pillay said. “The United States really is a global player in promoting human rights.”

Despite her departure from the U.N., Pillay is not ending her efforts to promote the rule of law. Mirroring Justice O’Connor’s endeavors, Pillay will work to improve legal education – a crucial component of creating and maintaining the rule of law.

“I will dedicate my efforts to South Africa and the rest of Africa to train young lawyers in international law and on how to better argue their own laws in their own countries,” she said.

Pillay added that receiving the O’Connor Justice Prize was “deeply moving,” especially since the award was created by a law school dedicated to training well-qualified lawyers.

“I support law students.”