GENEVA (Reuters) - Clashes between police and protesters in the U.S. town of Ferguson are reminiscent of the racial violence spawned by apartheid in her native South Africa, the top U.N. human rights official said on Tuesday.
Navi Pillay, who is due to step down at the end of the month after six years in the U.N. hotseat, urged U.S. authorities to investigate allegations of brutality and examine the “root causes” of racial discrimination in America.
U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday called for calm and a change in police tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by racially charged clashes and riots after a white officer killed an unarmed black teenager 10 days ago.
“I condemn the excessive use of force by the police and call for the right of protest to be respected. The United States is a freedom-loving country and one thing they should cherish is people’s right to protest,” Pillay said in a wide-ranging interview in her office along Lake Geneva.
“Apart from that, let me say that coming from apartheid South Africa I have long experience of how racism and racial discrimination breeds conflict and violence,” she said.
“These scenes are familiar to me and privately I was thinking that there are many parts of the United States where apartheid is flourishing.”
Noting that African-Americans are often among the poorest and most vulnerable U.S. citizens, and accounted for many of the inmates in the country’s teeming prisons, she added: “Apartheid is also where law turns a blind eye to racism.”
Scenes of heavily armed American police and now National Guard troops confronting demonstrators have become daily fixtures on television around the world, not least in countries branded abusers of human rights by the United States.
From Egypt urging “restraint” on U.S. police to Iran calling Washington the “biggest violator of human rights” and Chinese state media suggesting it clean up its own act before “pointing fingers at others”, Ferguson has been seized on by governments weary of criticism from the United States and the U.N. watchdog.
“There isn’t a country in the world which has a perfect human rights record and doesn’t have these kind of issues that emerge,” Pillay said. “In other countries, this is what I urge, that it should be properly addressed, whether in Egypt, China or any other country, you have to have fair trials and afford proper defense and they should not be spurious charges.”
Pillay, an ethnic Tamil, was raised in Durban and worked for more than 30 years as a defense attorney including for anti-apartheid activists, exposing torture and helping to win rights on Robben Island, where prisoners included Nelson Mandela.
President Mandela appointed her in 1995 to be the first black woman judge on the South African High Court and then asked her to serve as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She was later elected judge at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“My life experience has influenced my approach to these matters. I saw these things from the perspective of those who suffer and how important justice and accountability was for us,” she said.
Now 72, her international legacy includes landmark U.N. commissions of inquiry set up on war crimes in Syria, Sri Lanka and Gaza and on crimes against humanity in North Korea.
Pillay said the inquiries resulted in reports from “one good source of verified information”, but bemoaned the fact that not everyone was willing to work with the U.N.-appointed teams.
“I think it is very unfortunate that these countries do not cooperate with U.N.-mandated investigations or fact-finding missions, I am referring here to places like Syria, Sri Lanka and Israel who have denied access,” she said.
Pillay said last December that evidence collected by independent U.N. human rights investigators implicated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in war crimes, but later denied she had direct knowledge of their secret lists stored in her office.
“I think that in the name of justice, those parties who are most responsible should face trial. And in this case I expect that President Assad will one day face international justice.”
“All the facts found by my office and the commission of inquiry point to responsibility at the highest level in terms of who gave the orders or who failed to prevent their own forces from carrying out these crimes,” she added.
The rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has prompted some analysts to suggest that Western powers might re-engage with Assad to fight Islamist extremism at the price of dropping future criminal prosecutions against him and his inner circle.
Pillay said this would be a mistake. “It is always a concern of mine when justice is forsaken for political expediency or for peace negotiations.”
Her office is finalizing its latest figures for the death toll in the Syrian conflict that began in March 2011, the majority civilians, to be released later this week, she said.
“What are we saying to the families of these people? Huge crimes, atrocious crimes has been committed by both sides and there has to be accountability for this,” she said, referring to both Syrian government forces and rebels.
Activists and civil society should be consulted on any rapprochement with Assad, she said, adding: “They are bound to ask what kind of peace will then be achieved.”
The U.N. General Assembly has approved Jordan’s U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, as her successor making him the first Muslim and Arab to hold the post set up 20 years ago.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Crispian Balmer