U.N. assembly confirms S.African as human rights chief

UNITED NATIONS Mon Jul 28, 2008 2:21pm EDT

South African judge Navanethem Pillay speaks at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in this September 14, 1999 handout file photo. REUTERS/Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo/Handout

South African judge Navanethem Pillay speaks at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in this September 14, 1999 handout file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo/Handout

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. General Assembly on Monday unanimously confirmed South African judge Navanethem Pillay as the world body's new human rights chief, and activist groups urged her to be tough in her new post.

Pillay, who will succeed outspoken Canadian Louise Arbour, is a judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The post of high commissioner is one of the highest-profile and most controversial U.N. jobs. She takes office on September 1.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed Pillay's confirmation by the assembly, which represents all 192 U.N. member states, in a statement issued by his spokeswoman.

"The Secretary-General is determined to give the High Commissioner full support, including with increased financial and human resources," the statement said.

U.N. diplomats and officials said the United States had initially resisted the idea of appointing her due to concerns about her views on abortion and other issues but eventually agreed to drop its opposition.

Arbour, a Canadian, said in March she would not seek a second four-year term as the Geneva-based U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights after her term expired in June.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad congratulated Pillay on her new job last week but acknowledged that Washington had had some concerns about her based on allegations about her past.

"We didn't find substance in the allegations," he said.

South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo welcomed Pillay's confirmation and told the General Assembly that she has been an untiring champion of human rights around the world. "The Secretary-General has made the right choice," he said.

The United States gave no speech at the confirmation.

ANTI-APARTHEID

Diplomats said some human rights groups had expressed concern that the Harvard Law School graduate might not be as outspoken as Arbour.

UN Watch, a non-governmental human rights group that monitors the United Nations, said Pillay will have to fend off increased threats to individual freedoms around the world.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, said in a statement that Pillay faced three major challenges.

"Pillay will need to use her unique bully pulpit to throw a spotlight on the world's worst violations, including Sudan's mass killings in Darfur, Burmese (Myanmar) brutality, Chinese persecution, and (President Robert) Mugabe's destruction of Zimbabwe," he said.

Other rights groups had similar suggestions for Pillay.

As a lawyer in South Africa, Pillay defended anti-apartheid activists and championed the right of Nelson Mandela and other dissidents to legal assistance.

The daughter of a bus driver, Pillay grew up in a poor Indian neighborhood in Durban. She was born in 1941 and, as a member of South Africa's Tamil minority, faced discrimination during the apartheid years because of her dark skin.

As a defense lawyer in the early 1970s, she helped expose the use of torture and unlawful methods of interrogation in South Africa. From 1995, she was on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, eventually becoming its president.

(Editing by Jackie Frank)

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