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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, and the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: From Struggle Icons to Human Rights Activists to Hope for South Africa and the World

South Africa's human rights heroes

07 December 2018

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Johannesburg, 7 December 2018

Colleagues, Friends,


I am so very happy to be among you in this very symbolic week, and in this place teeming with history.

Happy, to once again, be in this country of human rights defenders – this country which has struggled so resolutely against discrimination and degradation of human beings.

Happy to be in this living museum of the triumph over injustice: this Constitution Hill, which once saw the incarceration of Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and other heroes, and today is home to this country’s admirable Constitutional Court.

And I am most thankful to be among people with such different profiles, from so many generations, and I am happy that we have some young people here. Young people sometimes take the gains for granted, because you have not experienced apartheid or dictatorship. So we need you to raise the flags for human rights. We are here to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the centenaries of both Albertina Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. Every time I have been asked who are my political icons, I have said that Nelson Mandela is the one who has inspired me throughout my political life.

This an occasion to celebrate what South Africa has meant for the international human rights community in these seven decades, and what the Universal Declaration has meant to the people of this country.


I see you. I honour your struggle for justice, human rights and freedom; your steadfast conviction that every individual matters, and we are all born equal in dignity and rights.

I honour that force of conviction which binds us together, and which cannot be destroyed.

I honour our history.

The intense and enduring concern for the injustice of apartheid, repeatedly voiced in the United Nations, and leading to the adoption of the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid in 1973.

The great bridge that led from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the 1955 Freedom Charter, which cried out “The People Shall Govern” and brought together people of all races to work for a non-racial, and democratic, state.

I honour the Constitution of this great country, which drew inspiration from the Universal Declaration and was signed into law on International Human Rights day in 1996, at the site of the Sharpeville massacre.

I honour the tremendous contributions made by that non-racial democratic State to the cause of human rights – a beacon of hope for the rest of the world seeking systems for greater justice, deeper respect, and an end to inequality.

Sawubona. I acknowledge and pay tribute to our partnership – the shared river of history, which runs between us, thanks to the work and the example of so many of our forefathers and mothers.

Because of the courage and the struggle of human rights defenders, much progress towards the common standard laid out in the Universal Declaration has been achieved.

Mandela and Mama Sisulu, and so many others, have inspired and greatly assisted our work across the world. Indeed, the entire human rights movement of South Africa has inspired us, with its reminder that no matter how brutal or how bitter life may be, the human spirit can overcome every kind of obstacle.

South Africans have taught us the power of the people’s protest against oppression and the force of justice to change minds and transform the world.

Mama Sisulu and other South African women taught us to emulate their fearlessness, their tremendous strength and their fortitude. No tribute to this country’s struggle for freedom would be complete without recognition of their role.

And so it is particularly fitting that I should come to this country, in the days leading up to our 70th Human Rights Day. In times of severe restriction to civic participation in countries around the world, there could be no better place to speak out in favor of the contributions of civic activism, youth and social movements to strengthening democracy, social harmony and sustainable development.

The ability of individuals and groups to speak out, demand justice and express critical opinions is vital to creating a resilient and participative society.

It is essential to meeting the challenges facing every State.

We need to revive our commitment to the fundamental principles of human rights.

I have to say, when you listen to people in some parts of the world saying that the Universal Declaration is only an example of Western beliefs -- that is not true. I think that every woman around the world, no matter which region, no matter which ethnic group, no matter the culture, wants her child to be fed when she is hungry, to be warm when it is cold, wants the possibility to be able to speak out when things are not going well, wants to be able to organise. Those are not Western values, those are universal values. And that is a reality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Not many people know that the members of the Commission that drafted the Declaration came from many different parts of the world. There were people from many different countries, including from Chile, from Africa and from India. There were also women, including Eleanor Roosevelt from the US, and an Indian woman, Hansa Mehta. At that time, people were following the French declaration of human rights -- ‘droits de l’homme’. At that time, ‘men’ included women. Hansa Mehta insisted that women needed to be there, because otherwise women’s rights would not be considered. It is thanks to her that the Universal Declaration refers to ‘all human beings.’ It is talking about all of us.

We need to use this great anniversary to gather support and push forward with the work of creating fair and inclusive societies across the world.

We owe this to the giants of the past, who guide us by their example; and we owe it to the young people, who stand among us today.

I encourage all of you to continue working to create a just, equitable and inclusive society, where all are able to share in the benefits of freedom.

The legacy of apartheid has left a lasting imprint. We face the significant challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment, as well as, high levels of violence against women and gender-relating killings.

But you have taught the world, that together, we can triumph over these challenges.

Together, we can build societies that are fairer, more respectful, and more equal.

We can forge a united and caring society, committed to the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom, and the principles of Ubuntu and Batho Pele, the basis of South Africa’s Constitution, as well as of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.