Honoring Mandela, UN Celebrates the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

By Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

This year, the world commemorates the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for the first time following the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela. This sad reality is also a reminder of his courageous struggle against apartheid and his inspiring victory over the racist forces that had imprisoned him for 27 years.
Mandela speaks at UN General Assembly (file photo).

The United Nations General Assembly, in a show of solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement, established this Day to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, when 69 people were killed and many others injured as police opened fire on a peaceful protest against South Africa’s appalling pass laws.

Nelson Mandela’s journey from prisoner to President was the triumph of an extraordinary individual against the forces of hate, ignorance and fear — and it was a testimony to the power of courage, reconciliation and forgiveness to overcome the injustice of racial discrimination.

He chose Sharpeville for the historic signing of South Africa’s new Constitution in 1996. On that occasion, President Mandela said: “Out of the many Sharpevilles which haunt our history was born the unshakeable determination that respect for human life, liberty and well-being must be enshrined as rights beyond the power of any force to diminish.”

Today, we remember Sharpeville as a symbol of the terrible toll of racial discrimination, and we honour those who lost their lives during the massacre. At the same time, we recall that President Mandela framed Sharpeville’s legacy as an unwavering resolve to protect the dignity and rights of all people.

The lessons of South Africa’s staunch defence of equality “out of the many Sharpevilles” in the country’s history can be applied anywhere in the world, not only in response to organized, institutional forms of racism, but wherever this pernicious problem occurs, including in daily interpersonal relations.

I call on all people, especially political, civic and religious leaders, to strongly condemn messages and ideas based on racism, racial superiority or hatred as well as those that incite racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. On this Day, let us acknowledge that racial discrimination remains a dangerous threat and resolve to tackle it through dialogue inspired by the proven ability of individuals to respect, protect and defend our rich diversity as one human family.

Transcript of Address by President Nelson Mandela at the 53rd United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 1998

Mr. President;
Mr. Secretary General, the Hon. Kofi Annan;

Your Excellencies;

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Mr. President, may I take this opportunity as President of the Republic of South Africa and as Chairperson of the Non-Aligned Movement to extend to you our sincere congratulations on your election to the high post of President of the General Assembly.

You will be presiding over this august Assembly of the nations of the world at a time when its deliberations and decisions will be of the greatest consequence to the continuous striving of humanity at last to achieve global peace and prosperity.

The Non-Aligned Movement, as well as my own country which is a proud member of that Movement, invest great trust in this organisation that it will discharge its responsibilities to all nations especially at this critical period of its existence.

Quite appropriately, this 53rd General Assembly will be remembered through the ages as the moment at which we marked and celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Born in the aftermath of the defeat of the Nazi and fascist crime against humanity, this Declaration held high the hope that all our societies would, in future, be built on the foundations of the glorious vision spelt out in each of its clauses.

For those who had to fight for their emancipation, such as ourselves who, with your help, had to free ourselves from the criminal apartheid system, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights served as the vindication of the justice of our cause.

At the same time, it constituted a challenge to us that our freedom, once achieved, should be dedicated to the implementation of the perspectives contained in the Declaration.

Today, we celebrate the fact that this historic document has survived a turbulent five decades, which have seen some of the most extraordinary developments in the evolution of human society.

These include the collapse of the colonial system, the passing of a bipolar world, breath-taking advances in science and technology and the entrenchment of the complex process of globalisation.

And yet, at the end of it all, the human beings who are the subject of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights continue to be afflicted by wars and violent conflicts.

They have, as yet, not attained their freedom from fear of death that would be brought about by the use of weapons of mass destruction as well as conventional arms.

Many are still unable to exercise the fundamental and inalienable democratic rights that would enable them to participate in the determination of the destiny of their countries, nations, families and children and to protect themselves from tyranny and dictatorship.

The very right to be human is denied everyday to hundreds of millions of people as a result of poverty, the unavailability of basic necessities such as food, jobs, water and shelter, education, health care and a healthy environment.

The failure to achieve the vision contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights finds dramatic expression in the contrast between wealth and poverty which characterises the divide between the countries of the North and the countries of the South and within individual countries in all hemispheres.

It is made especially poignant and challenging by the fact that this coexistence of wealth and poverty, the perpetuation of the practice of the resolution of inter and intra-state conflicts by war and the denial of the democratic right of many across the world, all result from the acts of commission and omission particularly by those who occupy positions of leadership in politics, in the economy and in other spheres of human activity.

What I am trying to say is that all these social ills which constitute an offence against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not a pre-ordained result of the forces of nature or the product of a curse of the deities.

They are the consequence of decisions which men and women take or refuse to take, all of whom will not hesitate to pledge their devoted support for the vision conveyed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This Declaration was proclaimed as Universal precisely because the founders of this Organisation and the nations of the world who joined hands to fight the scourge of fascism, including many who still had to achieve their own emancipation, understood this clearly that our human world was an interdependent whole.

Necessarily, the values of happiness, justice, human dignity, peace and prosperity have a universal application because each people and every individual is entitled to them.

Similarly, no people can truly say it is blessed with happiness, peace and prosperity where others, as human as itself, continue to be afflicted with misery, armed conflict and terrorism and deprivation.

Thus can we say that the challenge posed by the next 50 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the next century whose character it must help to fashion, consists in whether humanity, and especially those who will occupy positions of leadership, will have the courage to ensure that, at last, we build a human world consistent with the provisions of that historic Declaration and other human rights instruments that have been adopted since 1948.

Immediately, a whole range of areas of conflict confronts us, in Africa, Europe and Asia.

All of us are familiar with these, which range from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Sudan on my own continent, to the Balkans in Europe and Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Sri Lanka in Asia.

Clearly, this Organisation and especially the Security Council, acting together with people of goodwill in the countries and areas concerned, has a responsibility to act decisively to contribute to the termination of these destructive conflicts.

Continuously, we have to fight to defeat the primitive tendency towards the glorification of arms, the adulation of force, born of the illusion that injustice can be perpetuated by the capacity to kill, or that disputes are necessarily best resolved by resort to violent means.

As Africans, we are grateful to the Secretary General for the contribution he has made to help us find the way towards ending violent strife on our Continent. We have taken heed of his report, which will reinforce our efforts to banish war from our shores.

The very first resolution of the General Assembly, adopted in January 1946, sought to address the challenge of “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction”.

We must face the fact that after countless initiatives and resolutions, we still do not have concrete and generally accepted proposals supported by a clear commitment by the nuclear-weapons States to the speedy, final and total elimination of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons capabilities.

We take this opportunity to salute our sister Republic of Brazil for its decision to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and urge all others that have not done so to follow this excellent example.

In an honest attempt to contribute to the definition of the systematic and progressive steps required to eliminate these weapons and the threat of annihilation which they pose, South Africa together with Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia and Sweden will be submitting a draft resolution to the First Committee for consideration by this Assembly.

This is appropriately titled: “Towards a Nuclear Weapon Free World: The Need for a New Agenda”.

I call on all members of the United Nations seriously to consider this important resolution and to give it their support.

We must ask the question, which might sound naive to those who have elaborated sophisticated arguments to justify their refusal to eliminate these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction – why do they need them anyway!

In reality, no rational answer can be advanced to explain in a satisfactory manner what, in the end, is the consequence of Cold War inertia and an attachment to the use of the threat of brute force, to assert the primacy of some States over others.

Urgent steps are also required to arrive at a just and permanent peace in the Middle East, on the basis of the realisation of the legitimate aspirations of the people of Palestine and respect for the independence and security of all the States of this important region.

We also look forward to the resolution of the outstanding issues of Western Sahara and East Timor, convinced that it is possible to take these matters off the world agenda on the basis of settlements that meet the interests of all the peoples concerned.

Similarly, we would like to salute the bold steps taken by the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, this supremely important country of Africa, to enable it to return to democratic rule and a system of governance directed at serving the interests of all its people.

Together, we are also faced with the scourges of drug abuse and the illicit traffic in narcotics, organised transnational crime and international terrorism.

We strongly support the measures adopted or being discussed by the United Nations to deal with these challenges and commit our country and Government to cooperate fully in all regional and international initiatives to ensure that the peoples of the world, including our own, are spared the destructive impact of these crimes.

The world is gripped by an economic crisis which, as President Clinton said in this city only a week ago, has plunged “millions into sudden poverty and disrupt(ed) and disorient(ed) the lives of ordinary people ” and brought “deep, personal disappointments (to) tens of millions of people around the world “.

“Recent press reports”, President Clinton went on, “have described an entire generation working its way into the middle class over 25 years, then being plummeted into poverty within a matter of months. The stories are heartbreaking – doctors and nurses forced to live in the lobby of a closed hospital; middle class families who owned their own homes, sent their children to college, travelled abroad, now living by selling their possessions”.

He said “fast-moving currents (in the world economy) have brought or aggravated problems in Russia and Asia. They threaten emerging economies from Latin America to South Africa ” and he spoke of “sacrifice(ing) lives in the name of economic theory ”

President Clinton further recognised that, in his words, “with a quarter of the world’s population in declining growth we (the United States) cannot forever be an oasis of prosperity. Growth at home (in the US) depends upon growth abroad”.

I have quoted the President of the United States at this length both because he is correct and because he is the leader of the most powerful country in the world.

Accordingly, we would like to believe that with the problem facing all humanity, and especially the poor, having thus been recognised, courage will not desert the powerful when it comes to determining the correct course to be taken and following this course, to address the challenge that has been identified.

The tragedy President Clinton describes goes far beyond the sudden impoverishment of the middle class to which he correctly refers. Poverty has been and is the condition of the daily existence of even larger numbers of ordinary working people.

Paradoxically, the challenge of poverty across the globe has been brought into sharp focus by the fact of the destructive “fast movements of currents” of wealth from one part of the world to the other.

Put starkly, we have a situation in which the further accumulation of wealth, rather than contributing to the improvement of the quality of life of all humanity, is generating poverty at a frighteningly accelerated pace.

The imperative to act on this urgent, life and death matter can no longer be ignored. The central challenge to ensure that the countries of the South gain access to the productive resources that have accumulated within the world economy should not be avoided by seeking to apportion as much blame as possible to the poor.

Clearly, all relevant matters will have to be addressed, including such issues as greater inflows of long-term capital; terms of trade; debt cancellation; technology transfers; human resource development; emancipation of women and development of the youth; the elimination of poverty; the HIV/AIDS epidemic; environmental protection and the strengthening of financial and other institutions relevant to sustained economic growth and development.

Fortunately, the matter is no longer in dispute that serious work will also have to be done to restructure the multilateral financial and economic institutions so that they address the problems of the modern world economy and become responsive to the urgent needs of the poor of the world.

Similarly, this very Organisation, including its important Security Council, must itself go through its own process of reformation so that it serves the interests of the peoples of the world, in keeping with the purposes for which it was established.

Mr. President; Your Excellencies:

The issues we have mentioned were discussed in a comprehensive manner at the Twelfth Summit Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement held in the city of Durban, South Africa, earlier this month.

I am privileged to commend the decisions of this important meeting to the General Assembly and the United Nations as a whole, including the Durban Declaration, which the Summit adopted unanimously.

I am certain that the decisions adopted by the Non-Aligned Movement will greatly assist this Organisation in its work and further enhance the contribution of the countries of the South to the solution of the problems that face the nations of the world, both rich and poor.

This is probably the last time I will have the honour to stand at this podium to address the General Assembly.

Born as the First World War came to a close and departing from public life as the world marks half-a-century of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I have reached that part of the long walk when the opportunity is granted, as it should be to all men and women, to retire to some rest and tranquillity in the village of my birth.

As I sit in Qunu and grow as ancient as its hills, I will continue to entertain the hope that there has emerged a cadre of leaders in my own country and region, on my Continent and in the world, which will not allow that any should be denied their freedom as we were; that any should be turned into refugees as we were; that any should be condemned to go hungry as we were; that any should be stripped of their human dignity as we were.

I will continue to hope that Africa’s Renaissance will strike deep roots and blossom forever, without regard to the changing seasons.

Were all these hopes to translate into a realisable dream and not a nightmare to torment the soul of the aged, then will I, indeed, have peace and tranquillity.

Then would history and the billions throughout the world proclaim that it was right that we dreamt and that we toiled to give life to a workable dream.

Thank you.