International Human Rights Day was marked for the first time in South Africa on Thursday – and centred on the campus of the University of Pretoria. 

This day is celebrated worldwide each year to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN in 1948. It is normally conducted from the headquarters of the High Commission of the UN in Geneva.  As part of the celebrations, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Judge Navi Pillay, served as the President of the first World Human Rights Moot Court held at Tuks’ Law Faculty this week.

Judges in this simulated court case included former Chief Justices Pius Langa and Arthur Chaskalson, as well as international Judges. 

According to the dean of the faculty, Professor Christof Heyns, the World Moot Court in many ways resembles the Soccer World Cup. Ten countries within the five UN regions qualified for the final rounds. The winner of the Africa round was the American University in Cairo. 

Judge Pillay was awarded an honorary Doctorate from the University of Pretoria during a graduation ceremony where 30 students from the entire continent received their Master’s degrees. 

Judge Pillay, who became UN High Commissioner in July, 2008, said during her keynote address that this year Human Rights Day was dedicated to ending discrimination and embracing diversity.  She dedicated the honour to all those people who had stood up against injustice, violence, marginalisation and tyranny. 

“It is thanks to their determination and courage that many of us have had the privilege to see and experience a complete transformation in this country and elsewhere in Africa.” 

Judge Pillay said racial and ethnic discrimination, however, still occurred across the planet and remained one of the most insidious forms of discrimination. “Left unchecked, or actively fanned, they can all too easily lead to hatred, violence and, in the worst cases, escalate to full blown conflict, crimes against humanity and genocide.” 

She said that as attacks against non-nationals in South Africa and elsewhere demonstrated, the plague of xenophobia was far from being defeated.  One of the worst forms of discrimination related to the conditions of women.

Despite significant improvements over the past century, women and girls were still discriminated against in all societies, Judge Pillay said. 

At the same time, vulnerable minorities all over the world continued to endure serious threats and were frequently excluded from taking part fully in the economic, political, social and cultural life available to the majorities in the countries they lived in.  Judge Pillay said similar problems faced the estimated 370 million indigenous people who made up 5 percent of the world population. 

“Discrimination in all its aspects must be denounced and forcefully rejected every time it rears its odious head, whether in the guise of political opportunism, cultural mores or specious arguments presented as scientific evidence.”

Source: (www.pretorianews.co.za, 20091211)

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