UNITED NATIONS — The new U.N. high commissioner for human rights, South African justice Navanethem Pillay, has spent a lifetime quietly toppling barriers and exceeding expectations. So when human rights groups and some American officials expressed skepticism before her appointment Thursday, she said she was used to it.
As a member of a minority from an impoverished Indian neighborhood in apartheid-era South Africa, the color of her skin long kept her from becoming a judge. For years, even though she was a lawyer, she could not even sign a contract without her husband's consent.
But Nelson Mandela, who had come to know her during her visits to clients while he was in Robben Island prison, named her in 1995, after he became president, as the first woman of color for the country's High Court.
"Judges were all white and male," Pillay, 66, said in a telephone interview from South Africa. "The first time I entered a judge's chambers was when I entered my own."
Though some question whether she can abandon her studied impartiality to become an activist for the world's oppressed, Pillay says she has learned to discount the doubters.
"When you are appointed to a public position in the public glare, all people see is that there is someone new who is different from the norm, and wonder is she really able to do this job."
Pillay said a lifetime of facing injustice has made her sensitive to victims. Her impoverished community collected money to pay university tuition for Pillay, the daughter of a bus driver, and planted in her, she said, the determination to give something back. She made a name for herself in South Africa as a lawyer defending abused women and opponents of the apartheid regime.
In 1973, Pillay won the right for political prisoners, including Mandela, to have access to lawyers. In 1995, the year after apartheid collapsed, besides being appointed to the High Court, she was selected as a judge on the tribunal set up after Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
On the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, she presided over landmark cases in international law that established mass rape as a form of genocide, convicted a former head of government for crimes against humanity and prosecuted media for inciting genocide.
Since 2003, she has been a judge on the International Criminal Court at The Hague, a post she was to have held until March. Pillay said she understands concerns that she has not been seen as a campaigner, but once she gets out from behind the bench, she can fulfill the role of the chief defender of human rights.
Pillay said she is ready to stand up against violators in instances where it would be impolitic for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to speak out. On a recent visit to Myanmar to ensure aid for cyclone victims, Ban declined to call for the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The high commissioner must be the fearless and consistent voice for the rule of law, justice, peace and human rights," she said. "I think it can only complement the secretary-general's position to have someone fairly independent and vocal speaking on these issues. He is in a more difficult position. People have different styles, but they still get things done."
Pillay will succeed Canadian judge Louise Arbour, who overcame similar skepticism when she took the post and proved to be an outspoken advocate. Human rights groups were looking for a similarly vocal defender and favored other candidates over Pillay, whose record was less well known.
U.S. diplomats made it clear to Ban that Pillay was not their first choice, and were concerned about her management skills and positions on abortion rights. With the announcement of the nomination delayed four days after it was expected, U.N. corridors buzzed with questions of whether it had been derailed. But the timing was just a matter of checking with member states and human rights groups, U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Thursday that he looked forward to working with Pillay.
"We did not oppose her nomination," he said. "We have confidence that some of the issues that people have raised with regard to her are not relevant; we did not find substance to the allegations."
Those who do know her well say that her record makes her a strong appointment.
"I admired her tremendous drive, her success in getting women's issues put right at the top of the agenda," said Judge Richard Goldstone, a South African who worked with her on the Rwanda tribunal and on an advisory committee for international judges. "I have confidence that she will be a strong human rights commissioner and will stand up to governments."