Born in South Africa in 1941, Judge Navanethem Pillay received her Bachelor of Arts and her Bachelor of Law degrees from Natal University in South Africa and later a Master of Law and Doctor of Juridical Science at Harvard University in the US.
She opened her law practice in 1967 - the first woman to do so in Natal Province. As senior partner in the firm, she represented many opponents of apartheid, and became such a threat to the apartheid regime that she was denied a passport for many years. She handled precedent-setting cases to establish the effects of solitary confinement, the right of political prisoners to due process, and the family violence syndrome as a defense.
In 1995 came another first - she was the first black woman attorney appointed acting judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa. On the heels of that appointment, Judge Pillay was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to be a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served for eight years, including several years as president. During her tenure, the ICTR rendered a judgment against Jean-Paul Akayesu, mayor of Taba commune in Rwanda, finding him guilty of genocide for the use of rape in the "destruction of the spirit, of the will to live and of life itself."
As Judge Pillay said in an Occasional Paper she delivered in 2002, the jurisprudence on gender issues emanating from the UN criminal tribunals both in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia "provides a precedent in the ways in which international and regional bodies view and treat sexual violence." The evidence coming out of these trials so horrified the world community that in 1998 the Statute for the International Criminal Court became the first international treaty "to recognize a range of acts of sexual and gender violence as among the most serious crimes under international law. Most of these crimes had never before been explicitly articulated as crimes in any international instrument or domestic criminal code."
In February 2003, Judge Pillay was elected by the Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute, as one of the 18 Judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Judge Pillay's commitment to human rights and to women's issues extends beyond her work on the bench. She is currently honorary chair for Equality Now and serves on the Board of Directors for Nozala Investments, the women's component of the National Economic Initiative. She has also held key positions with the Women Lawyers Association, the Advice desk for Abused Women, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Women's National Coalition, Black Lawyers Association and many other groups. She also lectures widely on legal and social issues of equality and human rights.
Judge Pillay received awards from the IBA for outstanding international woman lawyer, from the National Bar Association for excellence in the pursuit of human rights and was elected honorary member of the American Society of International Law.
A widow, Judge Pillay has two daughters, Isvari Pather and Kamini Pillay.