10 December 2013, Bangkok, Thailand
Your Excellency, Mr. Plodprasop Suraswadi,
Deputy Prime Minister, Royal Thai Government
Your Excellency, Ms. Robina Marks,
Ambassador of South Africa
Nelson Mandela was the very best of humanity. He was called on by history to do extraordinary things, and in rising to this challenge he inspired not only his own people, but people in every corner, of ever community around the world.
We have come together today to celebrate a hero, and to rejoice in a life of exceptional courage. Madiba changed the world, and our lives – each and every one of us. His greatest achievement was the gift of touching the hearts of everyone he met. In the words of South African President Jacob Zuma: “We saw in him what we seek in ourselves”.
Nelson Mandela embodied the principles of the United Nations. As the Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon has said, there is no other person of our time who has done more to advance the values and the aspirations of the UN, especially in the pursuit of justice and human rights. “For to be free,” Madiba said “Is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” This message is particularly appropriate to recall today, which is also Human Rights Day around the world.
In November 2009, to recognize Madiba’s lifelong contribution to global peace, democracy, and freedom, the United Nations General Assembly declared his birthday, 18 July, as Nelson Mandela International Day. The declaration acknowledges his dedication to the service of humanity, through his work in conflict resolution, race relations, the promotion and protection of human rights, reconciliation, and equality for all.
For twenty five years, Nelson Mandela endured the desolate shores of his Robben Island prison. Forced to atone for his belief in the fundamental dignity and equality of every person – he remained unbowed and unbroken. When the day came of his release, he turned his back on bitterness and revenge, choosing instead the path of peace, dialogue, and reconciliation.
Once labeled a terrorist, Nelson Mandela was a warrior for change. His greatness of spirit lay in knowing when to fight, and when to put aside his weapons and take up the tools of nation-building.
He knew that, in any fight when the battle is past, it is as important for each warrior to wash the wounds of the other, as it is to win. This simple truth is the foundation of reconciliation. With it, he triumphed over hatred and united a nation in the struggle against Apartheid.
Nelson Mandela was a great warrior, but he was an even greater man of peace.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is no leader of our time who I admired more, or who had a greater personal impact on me since my student days, when my first public demonstration was against Apartheid. Later I had the honor of being in his presence in May 2003, during the funeral of his great friend, Walter Sisulu, one of the country’s greatest freedom fighters, whom he celebrated as an inspirational leader, and a man of humility who always sought to bridge divides.
As I shared with you, Ambassador Marks, and those of you who joined us for the celebrations this year of Nelson Mandela International Day, my team and I were especially honored to work very closely with Madiba in my former role as Executive Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), when he was serving as Facilitator of the Burundi Peace Process.
His understanding and empathy broke down the doors which had kept women from the peace negotiating tables – and his interventions breathed life into Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security.
In short, he was a moral compass of our times, and a moral authority for humanity.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to end by recalling the words of the William Ernest Henley poem, Invictus, often recited by Madiba to his fellow prisoners as inspiration on Robben Island:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
On behalf of every member of our United Nations family in Asia and the Pacific, I want to thank the people of South Africa and the family of Nelson Mandela.
The greatest son of South Africa’s soil will live on in the hearts and minds of Asia and the Pacific.
As we shared your love for him, we share your pain at his passing.
As we joined you in your triumphs, we join you in your sorrow and your celebration of his life.
Farewell and thank you Madiba for gracing our world.