South Africa’s Engagement with International Human Rights Law

Author: Judge Navi Pillay

ISSN: 1996-2193
Affiliations: Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Source: Stellenbosch Law Review, Volume 32 Issue 3, 2021, p. 365 – 385


The commitment to human rights is the cornerstone of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. However, South Africa’s human rights record in the international community often stands in stark contrast to its constitutional commitment to human rights. In both international and regional contexts, South Africa has demonstrated an inconsistent approach to foreign policy that is often guided more by political considerations than by a principled commitment to advancing human rights. This lecture provides an overview of South Africa’s engagement with international human rights law in the constitutional era and evaluates its human rights record in the international arena in a diverse range of fields. These fields include South Africa’s record of human rights protection in peace and security operations on the African continent; its record as a member of the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council; the assessment of its performance by UN human rights treaty bodies; and its record in respect of the Covid-19 pandemic, international criminal justice, the death penalty, and the arms trade. The lecture draws on Judge Pillay’s extensive experience in international law, including as President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.