Thursday, 20 July 2023 23:17

UN celebrates Mandela’s lifelong commitment to human rights

The United Nations on Thursday held its annual ceremony to honour the life and legacy Nelson Mandela, the first black President of post-apartheid South Africa who died in 2013.



The commemoration of Nelson Mandela International Day, which is celebrated on 18 July, pays tribute to his fight for freedom and equality, both at home and around the world.

Mr. Mandela, who was affectionately known by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, spent nearly three decades in jail for standing up to human rights abuses and severe injustices against black South Africans.

‘Transformation through forgiveness’

He was released from prison in 1990 and elected President four years later in the country’s first-ever multiracial elections.

Csaba Kőrösi, President of the UN General Assembly, said Mr. Mandela’s remarkable journey serves as an example of transformation through forgiveness as he bequeathed a multiracial, democratic South Africa vastly different from the racist state into which he was born.

“Madiba’s lifelong commitment to human rights embodies a founding principle of this organisation: We cannot leave anyone behind,” he added.

Honour him through action

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called Mr. Mandela one of humanity’s greatest heroes.

“Nelson Mandela was a colossus of courage and conviction,” he said. “How do we pay tribute to such a giant? Through words of respect, certainly. But we best honour Madiba through action.”

Mr. Guterres called for action against racism, discrimination, hate, and to “extinguish the legacies of colonialism.” He also appealed for promoting equality, human rights “and above all, justice.”

The UN chief said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed global inequalities and “three years on, the need to bridge the global justice gap is more urgent than ever.”

Change the world

He pointed to injustice at the heart of the international financial system that is rooted in colonialism. To this day, Africa is underrepresented in the global financial architecture and the continent lacks a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, he said.

He recalled that Mr. Mandela addressed these issues in a speech to the UN nearly 30 years ago, arguing against the uneven distribution of resources and decision-making power.

“The world is still waiting for change,” said Mr. Guterres. “Ultimately, we need fundamental reform of the international financial system. But we must also support developing economies with concrete steps we can take today.”

He called for urgently overhauling the business models of multilateral development banks, providing a sustainable development stimulus plan, and establishing debt relief that supports payment suspensions, among other measures.

UN Photo/Loey Felipe
Former US Ambassador Andrew Young (on screen), American politician and activist, speaks at the annual ceremony to commemorate the life and legacy Nelson Mandela.

Hope, liberty and dignity

The American politician and activist Andrew Young, a former US Ambassador to the UN, shared memories of Mr. Mandela who was both a friend and brother.

“We hear things that seem impossible to us: that he invited his jailor to sit with his family at his inauguration and that he constantly made an effort to unite South Africa in spite of all of its divisions,” he said.

Mr. Young, who is now 91, stated that his own country is today struggling with some of the same dynamics that plagued apartheid-era South Africa.

“We’re grateful for the example that was set by President Madiba,” he said. "And we’re grateful for this institution for following in that tradition and keeping alive the hope of liberty and dignity, and a realization that we can be free in spite of the cultural chains that bind us.”