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NEAL CONAN, host:

Ever since 9/11, there's been tension between efforts to preserve human rights and the fight against terrorism. It's an issue in India today and in Pakistan. It's an issue in this country too, and it's a major issue in the two countries where the United States is currently waging war. In a report out today, the United Nation's assistance mission in Iraq it's seriously concerned about the thousands of detainees held in Iraqi prisons and the nearly 15,000 more held by the U.S. who will eventually be turned over to Iraqi custody.

Come January, of course, a new administration takes power here in Washington so we've asked the United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights to join us today. And she has - as it happens, Navanethem Pillay took office in September so she's new to her job as well. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights joins us from the studio of the member station WABE in Atlanta. Congratulations on your new position and welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Ms. NAVANETHEM PILLAY (High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations): Thank you Neal.

CONAN: And we want to focus on U.S. policy in human rights but a lot of people in India right now...

Ms. PILLAY: Human Rights and security go together. And if you want a proper security, you will learn human rights of people and development of people. In this particular case, it's so clearly stated in the universal declaration of human rights in the constitutions and laws of every country including India, that torture is absolutely prohibited. It's inhuman. The country needs intelligence, I ,of course, have absolutely no doubt in saying that every state has legitimate concerns over security and has an obligation to protect the population so that's a given, you have to do something about terrorism. You can pass laws on how to control and prosecute and above all, you will have an intelligence agency. But all these institutions must conform to human right norms, rule of law and the ordinary rules that you expect ordinary citizens to observe. And therefore, torture would be out of the question even for intelligence gathering.

CONAN: We're talking to Navanethem Pillay, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights with us from member station WABE in Atlanta. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And in a recent speech, you argued that undermining human rights makes it more difficult to fight terrorism. Can you explain you meant by that?

Ms. PILLAY: There is, of course, no excuse for acts of terrorism. So, I make no excuses for those who resort to that. But when we address issues of terrorism, when we address issues of protecting people against acts of terrorism, it's important that we examine the causes of terrorism as well. And therefore, discrimination against people on grounds of race or religion, or even nationalities, is a very important factor because it builds up resentment, anger, and acts of vengeance.

I sat for many years, eight years in fact, as a judge on the Rwanda Tribunal and the daily evidence before me was clear that discrimination against the ethnic group Tutsis by the Hutus began in small places and built up and was exploited so that it ended up in genocide. So that's what serious discrimination and denial of human dignity or denial of rights can have. So, I would say that we have to understand the causes of terrorism and address that as well, and if we go on committing torture or continuing with discrimination against people, I think we will exacerbate the position instead of protecting people against terrorism.

CONAN: Before that, you were a lawyer in South Africa, and of course, suffered under apartheid yourself. You were not permitted even to ender judges' chambers, you and of course many others as well. Some people responded to that situation by taking up arms and feeling that that was justified. You, of course, were among those who did not. What lessons about human rights and the tensions that are put on a society by terrorism on both sides? Can we derive from your experiences in South Africa, do you think?

Ms. PILLAY: Someone asked me that question on how you would get non-state actives, rebel groups, warlords and so on to observe human rights when they're challenging and undermining the existing legal system as a whole. So, I think it's a matter for us to think about and consider. Nelson Mandela did call for an arms struggle by the ANC as a last resort because they had - he had pleaded in court many times and it was because of the call for arms struggle that he was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.

So, freedom fighters may justify that it's the last resort and that they're defending themselves. International law does allow resort to force in certain circumstances that make it legitimate. But human rights advocates call on both sides to respect human rights norms. This comes to us from a long way off in international humanitarian law. You wouldn't, for instance, commit a trustees on prisoners of war. There are certain rules governing war as well. So, this, it is dilemma when freedom fighters or even rebel groups take up arms because then the state has a duty to protect citizens against that. Modern day warfare confronts us with these situations. In many of the countries that I am covering, such as Colombia, Sudan, Somalia, Darfur, DRC...

CONAN: That's Congo, yeah.

Ms. PILLAY: This is the situation. Yes, Democratic Republic of Congo, the clashes between the government forces and rebel forces. Now I - yeah, I issued a statement on the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, pointing out that on the ground, the violence against women is being perpetrated by both the government troops and the rebel forces.

CONAN: And we wish you the best of luck in what I fear could be a frustrating job. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Ms. PILLAY: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Navanethem Pillay is the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights who took office in September. She joined us today from our member station in Atlanta, WABE. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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