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Graça Machel speaks truth to power at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit

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Addressing the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at the 73rd UN General Assembly in New York on 24 September, Graça Machel reflects on the purpose and relevance of an empowered United Nations dedicated to achieving a better world for all. 

"For me, the meaning of celebrating Madiba is to work to end this senseless violence as a matter of priority and urgency."

Graça Machel addresses the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit, held during the 73rd UN General Assembly in New York in September 2018. (Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak)

Madame President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés,

Mr Secretary General Antonio Guterres,

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning!

It is my singular honour to address this esteemed, collective home of the human family. I would like to thank President Espinosa Garcés and Secretary General Guterres for calling this special session to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life and his legacy of peacemaking. Thank you for this privilege.

I stand here not as a diplomat, but as a human rights advocate and concerned citizen of the world. So forgive me in advance for the unrestrained manner in which I will share my frank thoughts with you today.

This celebration of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, or Madiba, as he is affectionately known, provides an appropriate opportunity to reflect on the very raison d’etre of the United Nations.

In October 1945, the founding members of the United Nations pledged first and foremost, “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small”.

It strikes me with gratifying humility, that at this moment of reflection, we associate Nelson Mandela as a reference point to help guide us in fulfilling this supreme mandate. Indeed, Madiba’s legacy as a freedom fighter, peacemaker and statesman speaks to the core of our greatest aspirations for the United Nations and for humanity.

To celebrate Madiba’s life and his contributions to the world, is two-fold: to take inspiration from the values he embodies AND to emulate his unwavering commitment to freedom, equality, justice and dignity for all.

Let me pause here and bring to mind the legacy of Kofi Annan, my dear brother and fellow Elder, who also embodied the values the UN holds dear. His moral fortitude and commitment to justice should also serve as inspiration to shape the international community into a more stable, peaceful, and equitable one.

The United Nations finds itself at a time where it would be well-served to revisit and reconnect to the vision of its Founders, as well as to take direction from Madiba’s “servant leadership” and courage. His example of servant leadership reminds us that no sacrifice is too great to ensure the respect and protection of one’s people. He deeply believes that there is nothing more sacred than safeguarding the rights of all human beings: not the preservation of ego, not partisan politics, and not geopolitical considerations.

An expert at brinkmanship and a keen strategist, Madiba spent nearly 3 decades of his life as a political prisoner, and many years thereafter negotiating the complexities of peace-making and nation-building.

We seek inspiration from his successful approach: While staying true to his ultimate goal of social justice. he took the interests of his adversaries into consideration. He silenced his ego and took risks. He gave value to nuanced give-and-take, and negotiated in good faith.

The United Nations was shaped by our collective desire to prevent conflict and ensure that “never and never again” would war engulf nations the world over. Yet, more than 70 years later, today’s news reels are full of conflict-ridden headlines signaling significant discord within our international community. Global security has deteriorated remarkably in the past decade. The number of armed conflicts has increased. And particularly worrisome to me, are the protracted conflicts which have been ravaging our global family for decades.

Our collective consciousness must reject the lethargy that has made us accustomed to death and violence as if wars are legitimate and somehow impossible to terminate. There is no justification for the loss of life and suffering in places like Syria, in Yemen, in Palestine, in South Sudan, in Central African Republic and in Myanmar.

For far too long,

THOUSANDS of our children, just like your own sons and daughters, have been robbed of the joys of childhood,

THOUSANDS of women, no different from your own sisters and mothers, have been brutalized by rape as a weapon of war,

THOUSANDS of our fellow brothers and sisters, have been needlessly maimed and killed, and

THOUSANDS of families, similar to your own, have been ripped apart and left destitute.

It is time to say “enough is enough!”. Members of this esteemed chamber, do not let this just be another “talk shop” Summit.

As for me, the meaning of celebrating Madiba is to work to end this senseless violence as a matter of priority and urgency. I encourage to you to interrogate and dismantle what is fuelling these conflicts: ego driven decision making, rigid political dogma, greedy resource acquisition, and the massive arms industry, just to name a few.

It is time for every leader here to take responsibility: those who are directly involved in the atrocities plaguing our world, those who take sides, and those who sit in silence.

You have the ability to bring the death and destruction we witness on a daily basis to an end.

History will judge you should you stagnate too long in inaction.

Humankind will hold you accountable should you allow suffering to continue on your watch.

I speak to you as a woman who has experienced first-hand the pain and misery of war. In 1996, on behalf of then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, I published a report on the devastating impact of armed conflict on children. My colleagues and I embarked on two years of research which brought us to conflict settings in every corner of this globe. I was just a mother then, horrified by the stories of frightened children and grief-stricken mothers in the refugee camps we visited. Today, I am a grandmother, still haunted by their eyes and still sitting with a heavy heart, knowing the fate of children in conflict settings has gotten worse. We cannot rest until we right these wrongs. And we need to work more collaboratively with those outside of this room to do so.

Peace making does not only require a political response. It equally requires the muscle of the private sector, civil society organizations and citizens at the grassroots as well. As an example, 25 years ago an African institution, ACCORD, was established to contribute to resolving Africa’s conflicts so as to create the conditions for human security, economic prosperity and social cohesion. Today, after working on almost all of Africa’s protracted conflicts we know that working towards peace alone will not deliver this. Peace, together with governance and development, is the only approach that can ensure stability.

Therefore, in July of this year, the President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa and I, launched a new initiative, called “Global Peace” to take ACCORD’s experience from Africa and the global South and extend our solidarity across the world. “Global Peace” will make a modest contribution in transforming how nations drive development and stability. It will promote an ecosystem of innovators, influencers, investors and implementers to generate innovative solutions to challenges. This civil society initiative will complement the efforts of governments and multi-lateral agencies, and strengthen multilateralism.

When Madiba founded The Elders in 2007, he gave us a specific mandate, “to support courage where there is fear, to foster agreement where there is conflict, and to inspire hope where there is despair”.

We Elders spent the past year leading up to Madiba’s 100th birthday identifying and showcasing 100 inspirational civil society organisations, of all sizes and from all geographies. Each of these 100 organisations represents one of 100 ideas for a freer, fairer world. They work with a commitment to finding what unites their communities, and through collective efforts they are achieving peace, justice, health and equality.

On behalf of the Elders, I have the honour of gifting this Assembly with an inspiring publication featuring these “Sparks of Hope” which I will hand over to President Espinosa Garces and Secretary General Guterres upon the conclusion of my remarks. This compendium highlights the moral courage and leadership of change agents across the world, and I hope you will take inspiration from their work to accelerate social transformation.

In closing, I challenge you with Madiba’s words: “It is in your hands, to make a better world for all who live in it”.

It is therefore incumbent upon you to live up to the cherished UN Charter which demands of us, and I quote again, to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”.

I thank you.

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