Former UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has been sharply criticised by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and others for her harsh assessments of the Syrian regime - but as the country's crisis enters its fifth year, her analyses have never looked more understated.

Navi Pillay spoke about hope, reality and how "it has to end" in Syria [Basma Atassi/Al Jazeera]

Pillay, who stepped down last year after serving longer than any other rights commissioner, released almost 40 statements condemning the Syrian government during the uprising. She has repeatedly recommended that the Syrian government be tried by the International Criminal Court, calling the situation "intolerable".

Still, 74-year-old Pillay laments the limitations of what the international community can do for Syria. When countries go rogue in the human rights arena, "the UN doesn't have enough mechanisms to get a state to comply", she noted.

As high commissioner during the Arab Spring, the war in Syria, the conflict in South Sudan and the start of the Ukraine crisis, Pillay named and shamed rights abusers and spoke out loudly against injustice throughout her career. She briefed the UN Security Council more times than all of her predecessors combined, and many observers say she brought new prominence to the position.

From London, Pillay spoke with Al Jazeera about hope, reality and how "it has to end" in Syria. 

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Al Jazeera: You said there is never a 'sudden' uprising. You said 'Ukraine did not just happen overnight, nor Rwanda'. Would you say the same about the Arab Spring and Syria?

Navi Pillay: If you follow human rights violations, we say this is an alert to a crisis situation.

We always spoke out for Tunisians, that there was inequality. They were under a dictatorship. But certain international development agencies shortly before the uprising said that their development report reported good progress. Clearly, they got it wrong. They were not listening to what people were saying on the ground. Shortly after, someone burned himself alive because he couldn't find a job.

That tells you that you have to listen to the voices of people.

Syria started with protests by peaceful protesters. They were asking for their rights, political rights, economic rights, fair distribution of their country's resources. Instead, they were shot at. One thousand people were killed in the first month of the uprising.

Al Jazeera: How would you address right violations in countries like Syria - countries that seem to be less susceptible to pressure?

Pillay: That's a sad fact about Syria, where there is the worst and the longest suffering. A system only works nationally or internationally when everybody follows the legal framework.

If a state becomes a rebel against these rules, the UN doesn't have enough mechanisms to get a state to comply. The UN doesn't have an army of its own. Only the Security Council can take a decision to intervene.

I have called for action against Syria because we feared that this war would spread into other states, and that is what happened. It has spawned ISIL and participation by extremists and radical fundamental elements. They are selling children.

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Al Jazeera: What would you say if someone in a country like Syria, where people are suffering, would ask: 'What did you do for us?'

Pillay: The high commissioner uses his or her powerful voice to speak up for the victims all over the world, to demand their protection. We speak to the media, we speak at public events, we push inside the UN, we go on missions and speak to political leaders and heads of states and ministers. That's the role.

But just like ordinary people, we think: What was all that about? We haven't advanced. But this is one of the approaches, that together with the collective outrage of the people we can bring about change.

We can't say: 'Nothing works, so I am going to do nothing.'

Al Jazeera: Do you see an end in sight to what's happening in Syria? Is there any hope for the country?

PillayOh yes, it has to end. Of course there is hope.

This mission of inquiry in Syria is still continuing its investigation and finding facts. One day there will be justice for Syrians. History has taught us that.

There is unrelenting attention on Syria from the UN, the secretary-general and the high commissioner for human rights. Nobody has given up. We still continue to fight for peace and security and safe return of all Syrians.

I have called for action against Syria because we feared that this war would spread into other states, and that is what happened. It has spawned ISIL and participation by extremists and radical fundamental elements. They are selling children.


What inspires me is that I never thought that apartheid will end in my lifetime in South Africa, because several members of the Security Council voted against sanctions against the apartheid government. This included the UK, the US. To me, at that time, we felt even the Security Council is supporting racism. All of that changed due to a combination of factors, but most particularly activism inside our country. Everybody was involved in the country. Even a child on the street would know about apartheid because he has experienced discrimination.

We have learned lessons in South Africa. We cannot look to the outside world for help. Of course it inspires you when people support you. But we felt that we had to rely on ourselves, each in our own little way.

Al Jazeera: What would you say to human rights activists in Syria?

PillayDo not take too many risks, because people need you outside prison. You have to be strategic in what you say and how you say it. But you have to keep going, even if you write a poem, stage a play and spell out the law. You can say, 'this is the law and this is not happening.'

But if you say: 'Assad should go to prison and he should be killed,' then yes, you are asking for trouble.

I say, without taking unnecessary risk, you have to speak up and you have to educate people around you and keep their hopes up.

Al Jazeera: Do you ever go home feeling moved by something you saw or heard on the job?

Pillay: We are moved to tears each time a human rights defender is killed or imprisoned, a blogger is sentenced to 18 years in prison just for saying we need a change of government.

We are at the forefront tracking these violations and receiving millions of reports from ordinary people all over the world. That is a very special office because it gets hands-on information on violations, and most are so alarming.

So all I say to Syrians and human rights defenders all over the world is you have to speak up. You cannot acquiesce. If you are silent then you are acquiescing to what is going on around you.

You have to care.

Source: Al Jazeera