The year 2018 is significant on the global calendar, as we celebrate the birth of Nelson Mandela exactly 100 years ago. Mandela – the lawyer, the political activist, the prisoner, the peacemaker and finally the president – started an armed resistance movement, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) to fight against apartheid. Following his release from prison and 27-years of a life sentence served, he did what many thought would be impossible: he led his political movement, the African National Congress, into negotiations with the apartheid regime’s ruling party.
Mandela was elected in 1994 as the first president of a democratic South Africa. He used the strong mandate his party received in that first democratic general election to begin the process of uniting a divided country, through a number of reconciliation initiatives. Mandela stepped down after one term in office, despite having the opportunity to serve another term as president. As South Africans and others around the globe prepare to observe and celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth, many conflicts in the world sadly continue to be driven by deep divisions, exclusion and marginalisation, as well as the refusal of leaders to step down from office after reaching their statutory term limit – and, in some cases, even using violence and other means to extend their terms in office.
Mandela used his international standing as a global icon to build a new normative framework for a peaceful world. On 21 September 1998, Mandela addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and called on the nuclear-weapon states to make a firm commitment to eliminating nuclear weapons. Mandela recalled the very first United Nations resolution, adopted in January 1946, which called for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction”. He said that “we still do not have concrete and generally accepted proposals supported by a clear commitment by the nuclear-weapon States to the speedy, final and total elimination of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons capabilities”. Mandela went on to ask those who justify “these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction – why do they need them anyway?”
In the context of Mandela’s impassioned plea at the UNGA in 1998, it is significant to note that on 1 July this year, the world will observe the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, limiting the spread of military nuclear technology to non-nuclear states wishing to acquire them. Despite the signing of this treaty and Mandela’s impassioned plea, the world is again confronted by the prospect of nuclear war. It is encouraging that Africa’s position was declared when the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty was signed in 1996. The treaty, which, ultimately became known as the Pelindaba Treaty, came into effect on 15 July 2009 with the 28th ratification.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the basic rights and fundamental freedoms to which all human beings are entitled. It was adopted 70 years ago, on 10 December 1948, and was motivated by the experiences of the preceding two world wars. In the same address to the UNGA in 1998, Mandela said, “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.” It is also significant that in 2018 we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War – the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
As we celebrate all these events and the remarkable life of Mandela, we must remember his closing remarks to that 53rd Session of the UNGA, when he hoped for an end to poverty and war and said, “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.” The greatest tribute we can bestow on Mandela is to work to realise his dream for us and our children.
Our modest contribution to Mandela’s dream will be the launch of the Global Peace Forum in 2018. It will build a global compact between civil society, the private sector and governments to create a peaceful world free from poverty, unemployment and inequality.