The following article by Jessica Corsi was published Nov. 4, 2009 in the Harvard Law Record. It is adapted and reprinted here with permission.

In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the UN’s Human Rights Program, the UN’s highest human rights official, Navanethem Pillay, LL.M. ’82 S.J.D. ’88, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, came to Harvard Law School to discuss her current position as a human rights diplomat and how it differs from her previous roles as a judge and an impassioned activist.

Pillay aimed to show how diplomacy works behind the scenes to secure human rights, noting that it played an often overlooked role in finding the common ground needed to sustain fundamental human rights agreements. Today, she said, we see the role of human rights diplomacy in the international law to which states commit and that the UN monitors, and in the larger international human rights movement that utilizes advocacy to press governments to embrace human rights law.

Her talk charted the rise of human rights as an international movement and a field of practice, including the creation of her own post in 1993, the expansion of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which now spans the globe, and the mainstreaming of human rights within the UN system. Her timeline suggested that the ascendancy of human rights has followed on the heels of the mass atrocities and wars the world witnessed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Somalia in the early 1990s. She discussed how war was transformed in the 90s, becoming privatized—conflicts were no longer between states, but internal rebellions or fights between militias in the service of non-state actors who controlled “large swaths of territory, natural resources and weapons.”

Fueling the atrocities, “[t]he suppliers of weapons and the beneficiaries of profits from natural resources . . . were callously unconcerned with the human rights record and the rapacity of their customers.” From all this, she noted, we have come a very long way in establishing a working human rights regime.

Pillay candidly admitted how hard it was to work on behalf of human rights, noting that she is “often astonished at the resistance to and fear of human rights” that permeate even the UN. After highlighting some of the most useful tools for mainstreaming human rights within the UN system, such as the Human Rights Council and its progress regarding the Universal Periodic Review of human rights conditions in all member states, she reminded the audience that while “it is easy to get caught up in the world of the United Nations,” the focus must always remain on the conditions on the ground, such as conflict and poverty.

Following her speech, Pillay fielded questions from audience members on everything from Darfur to global warming, explaining how her office was involved in each of these issues. She addressed critical comments and sensitive topics, such as Sri Lanka’s refusal to accept an OHCHR office in country and her efforts to increase the number of non-Western staff employed by OHCHR.

Read the transcript of Pillay’s talk at Harvard. See also a 2006 profile of Pillay, “The Bus Driver’s Daughter,” that appeared in the Harvard Law Bulletin, the alumni magazine of Harvard Law School.