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Inside the Elders’ meeting in Rio

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Seventeen years on from their joint pledge on tolerance and diversity, Mary Robinson reflects on Nelson Mandela's legacy at an event to mark his centenary and explains how these values remain relevant in today's polarised world.

"To resist racists, misogynists, nationalists and extremists, we must reassert the values of Nelson Mandela as loudly and firmly as we can in all fora, both on- and offline."

On 27 February, Mary Robinson addressed a High-Level Side Event at the 37th Human Rights Council in Geneva on the importance of tolerance and respect for diversity in the 21st Century. Organised to mark Nelson Mandela's centenary, she reflected on the values underlying their joint pledge preceding the Durban World Conference on Racism 2001 and the lessons it still offers today's increasingly divided world.

It is a pleasure to be back in Geneva for this special event to mark the centenary of a truly great man – Nelson Mandela.

Madiba changed the course of history for his country, his continent, and the whole world. He endured 27 years behind bars as a prisoner of the apartheid regime, but emerged unbound with his conscience, courage and determination intact.

As President of the first multi-racial democracy in South Africa, he governed with magnanimity and principle. Remarkably, he showed no bitterness to his former captors – he understood that if his country was to heal the deep wounds inflicted by decades of institutionalised discrimination, all its citizens needed to feel ownership of their national destiny.

Let me provide a little background to the Vision Statement prepared prior to the Durban World Conference on Racism in 2001. Frankly, being Secretary General of that conference was my most difficult task as High Commissioner for Human Rights. I felt it was important to lift the discussions to a higher level and remind ourselves of the values behind the idea of a world conference against racism. I contacted Nelson Mandela, whom I had earlier asked to help me launch the 50th Anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in South Africa on 10th December 1997. He was very encouraging and said that if I could prepare a Vision Statement he would co-sign it with me and we could ask Heads of State or Government to co-sign.

There was no question of trying to have a negotiated text, so I asked two Irish friends, the poet Seamus Heaney and a leading moral theologian, Rev Professor Enda McDonagh to help me draft the vision. Enda came up with the key concepts of tolerance and diversity, which are so important at every level of society, and Seamus helped with some wonderful language. Indeed, Seamus was so taken with the project that he contributed an op-ed published in the New York Times on the eve of the Durban Conference entitled “Poetry’s Power Against Intolerance”. In it he referred to ‘Tolerance and Diversity: A Vision for the 21st Century’, and made the following comment:

“When we see the signature of Nelson Mandela at the bottom of the declaration, it immediately acquires a kind of moral specific gravity, for the name Mandela, like the name Solzhenitsyn, is the equivalent of a gold reserve, a guarantee that the currency of good speech can be backed up by heroic action… It has behind it the full weight of a life endured for the sake of the principles it affirms.”

So although there was Irish involvement in the drafting, the Vision Statement was Madiba’s gift to the world at the time and is still his gift to a world which badly needs it.

In the months leading up to it, and at the Durban conference itself, a total of 74 heads of state or government signed the Vision Statement, and it was duly referenced in the Preamble to the Declaration and Programme of Action.

When I think back to the Durban Conference, and some of the fraught debates that surrounded it, other words from Mandela come to me and offer, I think, a valuable lesson for today’s increasingly polarised and aggressive world.

When he launched The Elders in 2007 in Johannesburg on the occasion of his 89th birthday, Madiba ended his address with this exhortation:

“I believe that in the end it is kindness and generous accommodation that are the catalysts for real change.”


Durban’s legacy reminds all of us who are concerned with fighting racism and discrimination that we must be resolute in confronting all prejudices in whatever form they rear their ugly heads, and be guided as much as possible by those humane principles of kindness and generous accommodation which Madiba personified.

As our joint Declaration said:

“The horrors of racism - from slavery to holocaust to apartheid to ethnic cleansing - have deeply wounded the victim and debased the perpetrator. These horrors are still with us in various forms. It is now time to confront them and to take comprehensive measures against them.”

It should appal us all that 17 years later, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial still pollute public discourse in too many corners of the world.

The historical revisionism we have recently seen in Poland, and the use of anti-Semitic tropes in Hungary to attack the philanthropist George Soros, are chilling reminders that the ghosts of the past are never far away, and eternal vigilance is needed by politicians, press and civil society alike to combat this poison.

Another challenge to the ideals of tolerance and diversity that we could scarcely imagine in 2001 is the explosion of the Internet and social media. Despite the unparalleled possibilities for exchange, education and connections across borders afforded by our new digital world, we must also recognise that racists, bigots and extremists of every stripe can use and abuse its platforms to spread their gospel of hate.

The extent to which the infrastructure of the Internet and social media platforms can be manipulated by those with malign intent to subvert democratic processes is a serious concern. I very much welcome in this regard the new initiative launched by my friend and fellow Elder Kofi Annan on the technological threats to democracy, which could not be more timely.

But I am also concerned at the general coarsening of language online, and the extent to which Internet users – often hiding behind the cowardly cloak of anonymity – flaunt their vile views and insult anyone who dares to oppose or disagree with them.

To resist these racists, misogynists, nationalists and extremists, we must reassert the values of Nelson Mandela as loudly and firmly as we can in all fora, both on- and offline, from the marbled halls of the Palais des Nations to our everyday interactions with family, friends and colleagues.

One of the ways The Elders are seeking to do this is through our new campaign “Walk Together”, which champions grassroots activists fighting for the freedoms Mandela valued so dearly. Just last week I was in Buenos Aires with my fellow Elder Hina Jilani, standing in solidarity with justice defenders and civil society activists. We want to create a “bright web of hope” that connects and amplifies these voices, and takes Madiba’s message to the next generation.

This will not be an easy journey but it is utterly necessary. And as we walk together, we can take inspiration from the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, who never lost his hope and determination that a better world was possible.

To end with more of his inimitable, inspirational words:

"Those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty."

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