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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's our Thursday international briefing. Coming up, investing in Liberia's future. A conversation with American businessman Bob Johnson about a new venture to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Liberia.

But first, we note that tomorrow is United Nations Day. It's a day that commemorates the establishment of the UN Charter in 1945. And to mark that, we bring you a newsmaker conversation with one of the organization's leaders.

Ms. NAVANETHEM PILLAY (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights): I grew up as a second-class citizen with no legal recourse. In my lifetime, however, I had the privilege to witness a complete transformation.

MARTIN: Navanethem Pillay is the newly appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It's one of the international organization's most visible and controversial positions. Before her term began September 1st, Commissioner Pillay's life story and career are the stuff of which films are made. A South African of Indian heritage, she grew up and began her human rights work during the apartheid era. She's a lawyer and served as a judge on both the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and on the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Her task now is to improve conditions for human rights around the world. We welcome Navanethem Pillay to our program. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. PILLAY: Thank you very much, Michel. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: What does the term human rights encompass now as defined by or agreed on by the international community?

Ms. PILLAY: The human rights are rights that are the rights of every human being by virtue of a person being a human being. And the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. And a comprehensive vision of the body of human rights is set out in the United Nations Universal Declaration. And for me, that declaration is a beacon of hope for the future because it contemplates a world with full realization of all rights for all people: civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, without distinction. A world in which every man, woman and child lives in dignity, free from hunger, and a world without violence and discrimination, with the benefits of housing, health care, education and opportunity. So you will see this vision represents a global culture of human rights, and it should be a unifying force within and among all cultures.

MARTIN: Speaking globally, of course, what do you consider to be the most pressing challenges to that vision of global improvement in human rights right now?

Ms. PILLAY: The pressing challenges are - we have the right language. We have the rhetoric. We do not have implementation of these principles in almost every part of the world. Every country, for instance, has problems of domestic violence. Every country has problems of discrimination on racial grounds, and in some parts of the world more acutely discrimination on religious grounds. So the problem that faces us 60 years after the Universal Declaration is how best to have these principles implemented.

MARTIN: Often on this program, we talk about issues of race and racism both nationally and internationally. You've called for a conference in April of next year on racism and xenophobia. What do you hope to accomplish there?

Ms. PILLAY: This conference in April is a review conference of a conference held seven years ago in Durban on racism, xenophobia and all kinds of intolerance. And so the United Nations General Assembly ordered a review of that conference in order to assess how and whether states are implementing the consensus that was reached there on what the goals are and what the requirements should be to eradicate racism, xenophobia and intolerance. So the purpose of the April conference is for states to review their own records, to review the records of the world and look into compliance of these standards.

MARTIN: And of course, that conference, that summit in 2001, was very controversial. The U.S. and Israel walked out, saying that it had become a forum for anti-Semitism. There was a heated discussion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Obviously, the summit would be more effective with the participation of all member nations. How are you trying to ensure that?

Ms. PILLAY: I have called for participation by all states because it's when you participate that your voice is heard. Whatever your opinion, you state it there. And the U.S., mind you, is not without race problems. In fact, much more so in other parts of the world. My country has come out of apartheid. And so every country needs to participate because we want to achieve common standards, common consensus and common guidelines on the kind of laws we should pass, the kind of training our police and law enforcement officers should receive.

These are all for the good, and I think that's a good document that emerged from the Durban conference, which, mind you, was controversial because there was a small minority in the NGO forum which was outside the main conference, which became rather rabid and vigilant in anti-Semitic statements. And that hurt and upset many people. But in my view, it's not a cause for a responsible government to walk out of a meeting or to announce that it will not follow up - attend the follow-up conference.

MARTIN: But do you agree, though, that part of that conference, that even though it was sort of off site, not part of the main conference, did degenerate into a kind of an anti-Semitic forum? Do you think that that is an accurate description of what happened then?

Ms. PILLAY: I was not present. They have now - even though it happened in my city. You know, in every conference and meeting you have a small group of whatever persuasion, let's for the moment call them an extreme group, performing in one corner outside the hall. Why would you allow that to affect your view of this conference? The Durban conference must be weighed by the outcome document that Mary Robinson achieved, my predecessor. And that is the platform document which was achieved by consensus of all states. So to me, it's a success because if you look at that document, it has provisions that you and I and all your listeners would go along with.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Navanethem Pillay. She's the UN high commissioner for human rights.

Throughout your career, you've also been a strong advocate for the rights of women, for gender equality. Now - but this is an area that's difficult for many people because many people consider abortion rights or reproductive rights critical to gender equality, but there are other people who feel equally strongly that human rights should be extended to the unborn. How do you think about these conflicting and equally strongly held values?

Ms. PILLAY: I think that these are controversial and difficult issues, and that's why very few people adopt one or the other point of view. My starting point is to allow women the right of choice so they make a decision about their own bodies. But the role of society, role of governments, is to help them make those choices. For instance, if there is ample provision that a child will be brought up and will have the assistance of the state, that mothers will receive help, you know, you don't have that in many parts of the world. The burden of bringing up children is not - does not receive the same level of focus as the abortion issue. So I think there are many factors that should be taken into account. As the high commissioner for human rights, I respect the different viewpoints on the matter.

MARTIN: Can we just talk briefly about you in a minute that we have - the couple of minutes we have left? You grew up in South Africa, as we heard at the beginning of this conversation. You said you grew up as a second-class citizen. When you were growing up, do you think you envisioned the life you have now, the role you have now?

Ms. PILLAY: You know, I never, even as an adult, I never thought that apartheid would end. We - it was like a way of life. You knew you could not go into the park. You could not go on the beaches because they were only for white people. You would pause before you entered a lift because even lifts were segregated. So if you grow up with that and you grow up feeling you - there is something wrong with you, you are inferior, even as an adult I never thought that the system would end. And I used to I say, I don't see it changing in my lifetime.

So here I am, still living, and I, like many other South Africans, owe the change to the vision of Nelson Mandela who went for compromise and negotiation, you know, words that I scorned as a university student. But in our particular case in South Africa, it helped us to put our past behind and have a new, democratic South Africa.

MARTIN: Finally, I'm going to ask you the same question I asked Jane Holl Lute, the new head of the UN Peacebuilding Commission . As you start this very important job, how will you know whether you have succeeded?

Ms. PILLAY: Well, it's just six weeks into the job. I'm still learning. I would know that I have succeeded if I have in meaningful ways touched the lives of people on the ground, of victims who are suffering, because that's my role. It is the protection of the rights of victims who are suffering violations.

MARTIN: Navanethem Pillay is the UN high commissioner for human rights. She was kind enough to join us from the UN in New York. We do hope you'll come back and speak to us from time to time.

Ms. PILLAY: Thank you. I look forward to that, too.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us.

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