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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Nelson Mandela: Statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay

Nelson Mandela

06 December 2013

GENEVA (6 December 2013) - “Millions of people, including many who never met him, will feel deep personal sorrow at today’s news, since Nelson Mandela was perhaps the greatest moral leader of our time.

Despite 27 years in prison, he never followed the path of vengeance. I remember well how, when he was finally released, feelings in South Africa were boiling: feelings of hatred, a thirst for revenge, a burning desire to discriminate against those who had so ruthlessly discriminated against us. I shared some of those feelings – it was hard not to, after living so many long years under apartheid.

But Nelson Mandela refused to go down that path, just as earlier he had refused to make a deal to win his own freedom in return for selling out on the principles of the liberation movement.

He turned it all around with words. He told us to throw our spears and guns into the sea. He told us to set aside our desire for vengeance and work for a South Africa not just free of racism, but free of all types of discrimination. He showed us that a better future depended on reconciliation, not revenge.

He was a man who never compromised on his fundamental principles, while at the same time being quite prepared to compromise on key issues when it mattered most.

He believed passionately in liberty and dignity, in freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. He also believed in human rights for all, and pursued that path throughout his presidency and in his retirement. He did a great deal to promote women’s rights, treating men and women equally and placing women in positions of power.

He remained true all his life to the famous words he spoke in April 1964 during the Rivonia Trial, which ended in his imprisonment: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Thankfully, he did not die then, as – if he had – I do not know what situation South Africa would be in now. Mandela was the driving force behind South Africa’s new, progressive Constitution which enshrines the principles of equality and non-discrimination for all people. And through his extraordinary personality, and his exceptional ability to speak the right words at the right moment, he was instrumental in creating the atmosphere that made such a Constitution possible.

Nelson Mandela revealed how he had drawn strength from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights during his incarceration on Robben Island. In his last address to the UN General Assembly in September 1998, he noted how the Universal Declaration had validated the struggle against apartheid, but also posed the challenge that “our freedom, once achieved, should be dedicated to the implementation of the perspectives contained in the Declaration.”

He himself never swerved from those perspectives. A truly remarkable man, whose example should never be forgotten.”


As a young lawyer, Navi Pillay acted as a defence attorney for anti-apartheid activists, exposing torture, and helping establish key rights for prisoners on Robben Island. In 1995, after the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela appointed Pillay to be the first black woman judge on the South African High Court. Later, he launched her international career when he asked her to serve as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served a total of eight years, including four as President.

For further information and media requests, please contact
Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 or + 41 79 506 1088 / [email protected] ); Liz Throssell (+ 41 22 917 9434 / [email protected]) or Cécile Pouilly (+41 22 917 9310 or +41 79 618 3430 / [email protected])

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