Pro-Israel groups call on US law firms to boycott event honouring UN’s Navi Pillay

Azad Essa

Middle East Eye  /  September 29, 2023

Human rights campaigner continues to face barrage of attacks for documenting Israeli crimes against Palestinians.

Several pro-Israel Jewish groups have urged law firms to rescind their sponsorship of a conference next month over the presence of a former UN high commissioner for human rights at the event.

In a letter sent to law firms Debevoise & Plimpton; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; and White & Case, the organizations urged the law firms to rescind their sponsorship of the conference scheduled between 19-21 October in New York City, on account of Navi Pillay, the noted South African judge, accusing her “of holding [a] discriminatory agenda against the Jewish people”.

Pillay, who was the UN high commissioner for human rights between 2008 and 2014, as well as a former judge of the International Criminal Court between 2003-2008, is scheduled to receive an “Outstanding Achievement Award” at the event organized by the American Branch of the International Law Association on 21 October.

In the letter signed by more than 30 organizations both in the US and South Africa, the pro-Israel groups said continued participation in the conference amounted to legitimizing bigotry, adding that participants were effectively endorsing what they call Pillay’s “antisemitism”.

“Pillay has repeatedly demonstrated a bias that fundamentally undermines the fight against antisemitism, Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects, and the integrity of international law,” the letter said.

Signatories included pro-Israel groups like the American Jewish Congress; World Jewish Congress – North America; B’nai B’rith International; StandWithUs; the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Hadassah; Human Rights Voices; NGO Monitor; Camera; and the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. They also included South Africa-based Zionist groups as well as several US-based legal organizations.

The American Branch of the International Law Association did not reply to MEE’s request for comment.

A concerted effort

Francesca P Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said the allegations against Pillay were “baseless”.

“They appear to be designed to disseminate disinformation and tarnish the reputation of anyone engaged in the question of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and violations associated with it,” Albanese told Middle East Eye.

“Such tactics have long been employed to shield the Israeli apartheid policies towards Palestinians from scrutiny, and to deflect attention from the harsh realities on the ground,” Albanese added.

Likewise, Ronnie Kasrils, a former South African government minister, said it was outrageous that the pro-Israel lobby would try to intimidate the law firms from honoring Pillay.

“My fellow South African, Navi Pillay, is an outstanding opponent of racial discrimination in all its forms; and is a champion of human rights and justice for all people,” Kasrils told MEE.

Pillay, who is currently the president of the Advisory Council of the International Nuremberg Principles Academy, has been at the receiving end of attacks from Zionist groups, following several years of meticulous documentation of Israeli crimes against Palestinians.

The Israeli government has routinely described the UN’s Human Rights Council as biased and has refused to cooperate with UN-led investigations.

In 2010, Pillay defended the Goldstone report that investigated the 2008-2009 Israeli military assault on Gaza.

The Goldstone report concluded that both the Israeli military and Hamas had engaged in war crimes and urged both sides to carry out credible investigations of their own. The report said that should these investigations fail to be carried out properly, they ought to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Around 1,300 Palestinians were killed during the three-week Israeli invasion of the besieged enclave. Thirteen Israelis were also killed by rockets fired from Gaza.

At the time, Pillay said that Israeli slurs and attacks on efforts to bring attention to the findings were clearly attempts to distract from the pursuit of clarity and truth.

“These vehement arguments tried to shift the focus away from the soundness of the methodology and findings of the mission to plunge the debate into the quicksands of the highly partisan politics of the Middle East conflict,” Pillay said.

As part of a commission of inquiry set up in 2021 to investigate alleged violations of international law in the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, Pillay’s team concluded that there was “credible evidence that Israel has no intention of ending the occupation, has clear policies for ensuring complete control over the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and is acting to alter the demography through the maintenance of a repressive environment for Palestinians and a favourable environment for Israeli settlers”.

In 2022, following a spate of personal attacks from the Israeli government on the three-member commission, Pillay felt compelled to inform the president of the UN General Assembly about the extent of the intimidatory tactics. 

“During the interactive dialogue following the presentation of the report, the permanent representative of the State of Israel to the United Nations launched personal attacks directed at each of the commissioners, including by using offensive language and insults which questioned their objectivity and impartiality, accusing them of ‘Jew hatred’, labelling them ‘blatant antisemites’, and referring to them as part of a ‘terror-supporting’ commission,” Pillay wrote. 

She also reportedly told a journalist that she would be asking UN secretary general Antonio Guterres for a statement addressing accusations she was antisemitic. 

When Guterres’ spokesperson was asked if he would issue a statement, he replied:

“We don’t have a statement on this, but obviously, you’re aware of the many different roles Navi Pillay has played in the UN system in terms of the international criminal tribunals, in terms of the work of the Human Rights Office. And so, her professionalism and her integrity are well known to all of you, and we would reaffirm that,” the spokesperson said.

To scholars in the field of human rights, however, Pillay is an unambiguous trailblazer and a dogged campaigner.

Sarah Farbstein, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard University, said that Pillay, as the UN high commissioner for human rights between 2008-14 “built a legacy of addressing all forms of discrimination including against previously overlooked groups”.

“She is an icon. She is a role model,” Farbstein said during a panel discussion with Pillay at Harvard in November 2022.

Likewise, Albanese, the UN special rapporteur, added that Pillay’s track record in upholding justice and human rights bears testament to the baselessness of these allegations.

“Her lifelong efforts in fighting against discrimination and fighting for justice, equality and human rights, have been applauded by numerous members of the global community, including Jewish scholars,” Albanese added.

Kasrils, the former minister of parliament from South Africa, described Pillay as “richly deserved of this award”.

“I call on the law firms concerned to reject with contempt this despicable demand which reeks of the stench of intolerance and bigotry all too prevalent in today’s world – a world community that needs to honour the contribution of those like Navi Pillay,” Kasrils added.

Pillay did not reply to MEE’s request by the time of publication.

Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City