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Leitner Center Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Gay McDougall, wins the South African National Medal of Honor

New York, NY (April 20, 2015)—The Leitner Center for International Law and Justice is pleased to announce that Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence Gay McDougall has won the South African National Medal of Honor, which is named for anti-apartheid politician O.R. Tambo, in recognition of her contribution to the fight against apartheid and racial injustice in South Africa.

Ms. McDougall is the former director of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and she served as a member the South African Election Commission, which oversaw the country’s first democratic, non-racial elections in 1994. She also served as the first United Nations Independent Expert on Minority Issues from 2005 to 2011.

Ms. McDougall will accept this award in Pretoria, South Africa on April 27, 2015, the anniversary of the first democratic elections in South Africa.

Below is the text of her commendation profile, provided courtesy of Ms. McDougall:


Professor Gay McDougall: For her excellent contribution in the fight against apartheid and injustices meted out on the black majority.

Gay McDougall is an international human rights lawyer and activist who has spent her life battling against racial oppression.  She was born on the 13th August 1947 in Georgia, USA and grew up in the civil rights movement that challenged the system of racial segregation which replaced slavery in the US.  This is where her keen sense of justice and advocacy for equal rights began.  Her quest went beyond the race politics of the US and spread to the international arena, including Southern Africa.

McDougall saw to it that the aggression of the South African government towards Namibia was thwarted. She founded a new group called the Commission on Independence for Namibia that consisted of 31 distinguished policy makers. She supervised the commission’s monitoring of the UN-mandated process leading to the independence of Namibia in 1989.

McDougall was perhaps most noted for her role in loosening the grip of apartheid. She led the Southern African Project for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, where her tireless efforts challenged those who wanted to keep apartheid intact. 

In the early 1980s, she was a member of the small group of activists that initiated the daily demonstrations and arrests that took place in front of the South African Embassy in Washington DC.  That mushroomed into a national movement of Americans who engaged in civil disobedience to oppose apartheid.  That popular movement galvanized support for US economic sanctions against apartheid and when President Ronald Reagan vetoed the sanctions, Congress overrode that veto.

She worked with liberation movement leaders in London and Lusaka.  She also worked inside South Africa to supply South African lawyers with the resources and support needed to gain the release of thousands of political detainees and defendants, to file litigation to invalidate apartheid laws, to stop communities from being evicted to Bantustans and to defend leadership when charged with treason.

McDougall assisted in overseeing the first democratic election in 1994 by serving as one of five international members of South Africa’s 16-member Independent Electoral Commission which successfully organized and administered the country’s first non-racial elections. 

In recognition of her tireless opposition to apartheid, McDougall was invited to stand next to Nelson Mandela as he cast his ballot in the historical election that made him President. McDougall was later appointed to serve as the first United Nations Independent Expect on Minority Issues. 

South Africa salutes Gay McDougall for her keen sense of justice and for her tireless work for the rights of humankind globally.

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Leitner Center for International Law and Justice
Fordham University School of Law
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Email: LeitnerCenter@law.fordham.edu
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Tracy Higgins
Professor of Law
Co-Director, Leitner Center for International Law and Justice
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