Statement by Ambassador Peter Thomson, Permanent Representative of Fiji, on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, on the occasion of the Memorial Meeting in honour of the late President Nelson Mandela

New York
Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mr President,

Thank you for convening this gathering that we might all have the opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of one of humanity’s great leaders. I stand here today on behalf of the 133 countries of the Group of 77 and China to join the international voice that rises in praise of the late President Mandela.

At the outset I express the Group's solidarity with the Government and People of South Africa, in particular with the family of the late President, at this time of their bereavement. The grieving is in the first place theirs, and our respect and condolences are turned in their direction. But they should know that the whole world mourns with them and that we will carry forward within our lives the spirit of the late President.  For his life of service and leadership has transcended to a place of universality in human history reserved only for those leaders who have moved our communal attention away from the strife and divisiveness to which we are so prone, towards a higher moral ground where justice and benevolence rule.

The world has embraced the story of Nelson Mandela’s life, the human rights lawyer, the prisoner of conscience, the Nobel Prize-winning international peacemaker, and the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa. Indeed, his life is an essential page in the history of the twentieth century, and many of Madiba’s homilies have become part of our communal conscience.  During the last two weeks, you will have heard his most famous quotations repeated many times over, uttered in more eloquent vessels than this humble address; but I make no apology for repeating a few of them now.  For they should be spoken again and again, and we must see to it that Madiba’s story and his uplifting words are passed on to our children and their children.

Here at the United Nations, charged as we are with massive responsibilities on behalf of humankind, we are fortified by the enduring lessons the great man left us. Such fortification should then lead us to speaking and acting in the mode he extolled. It should move us to pursue the goals that Nelson Mandela struggled so long and hard to achieve; and whatever our handicaps, we should aspire to reach the higher ground to which he pointed us.

In a world that still suffers the curses of racism and religious intolerance, let us heed once more Madiba’s words, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

For those of us emerging from situations of conflict, injustice and deprivation, there is this from an undaunted man walking free from twenty-seven years of wrongful imprisonment, saying as he walked towards his freedom, “I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."

"Leaders cannot afford to hate", Madiba told us, "for hatred clouds the judgement." And he once put it this way, "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."

“If you want to make peace with your enemy,’ he said, “You have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

This great son of Africa, this man of the South, who in his time became a universal moral leader for all humanity, humbles us with his thoughts on leadership, "A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly,” he explained, “Knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don't have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed."  He counseled us all that we must be ever honest with ourselves, and that effective peacemakers are people of integrity and honesty yes, but they are also people of humility.

Next year, we the Member States of the United Nations, will begin the design of the Post-2015 Development Agenda.  We are all agreed that our work on the agenda’s design and its application must have at its very centre the efforts of the international community to eradicate poverty globally. And as we apply ourselves to this great undertaking, let us remember Madiba's exhortation on the subject, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” And in that same stirring speech in Trafalgar Square in 2005, he said, “Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

I’m sure many of you have been asked how we will complete the mammoth task of designing the Sustainable Development Goals and the Post-2015 Development Agenda within the mere two years allocated to us.  Next time you are asked that question, just quote Madiba, when he quipped, “It always seems impossible, until its done."

In setting our goals, let us not shrink from high aspiration, let us take the steps to that higher ground, however arduous and taxing they might be. Madiba motivated us to do so in his words, “There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

Madiba’s long walk has ended now, as it must for us all one day, but we have lifted up the burden of his quest.  And we will carry it forward and pass it in time to others, for as long as poverty exists in this world and as long as good people are denied the essential services that are their fundamental human right, we will not have reached that higher ground.  And so, again in the words of Madiba, "We must use time wisely, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right." And lest we forget, he also said, "To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity."

On that subject, the great man also wrote, “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning."

Acknowledging Madiba’s contribution to the struggle for freedom and democracy internationally and the promotion of a culture of peace throughout the world, every year on the 18th of July, we will be honouring him though the observation of Nelson Mandela International Day. The focus of this day will not be long speeches, but practical acts of public service, with each of us devoting 67 minutes of that day each year to public service.  Let us now mark our calendars for next year and begin planning how best we might utilize the 67 minutes we personally will give to uplifting the public good in a manner that “enhances the freedoms of others.”

I would like to conclude this statement with a smile on my face, for that is what Madiba wanted of us.  To bring up a smile to all our faces, I remind you of his words when he said, "I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair.”

So allow me to close with a last Madiba homily that should be ingrained in the mind of every diplomat as he or she leaves their capital heading for meaningful mulitilateral service at the United Nations. “Appearances matter,” Madiba said, “And remember to smile.”  

I had the privilege of meeting Madiba in an informal setting some twenty years ago, and in my mind I have a snapshot that corresponds directly with the image of him to which the world holds dear: a man with kindly eyes and an open heart, who emanated honesty and integrity, wisdom and good humour; a man who offered a hand of friendship and in whom you could implacably trust; a man who, to use his own words, had a truly formidable combination of a good head and a good heart; a man who with all the troubles he shouldered, was always ready to bestow upon you, whatever your station in life, an objection-over-ruling, heart-warming, humanity-sharing, wide-beaming smile.  And so, dear colleagues, as we go about our days here at the United Nations and wherever our lives may take us, when we think upon President Nelson Mandela in the time ahead of us, let us always remember to smile.

I thank you, Mr President

 

 

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