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10th Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot Court Competition

Closing remarks by United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore

20 July 2018

Excellencies, distinguished jurists, dear friends,

It is a true honor to join you here for this ceremony in celebration of your work together this week and in doing so to share this podium with such distinguished jurists.   I must recognise too and specifically the leading support provided to this event by HE the Ambassador and Permanent Representative for South Africa and of course by our colleague in the human rights system, the wonderful Professor Christopher Heinz. 


For universal human rights, 2018 is a most remarkable year of anniversaries – it is the 10th anniversary of the Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot Court Competition AND the 20th anniversary of the UN Human Rights Defenders declaration.  It is the 25th anniversary of the UN’s Vienna Declaration that affirmed the universality and indivisibility of rights, women’s rights as human rights and established the High Commissioner for Human rights.  It is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is the centenary of the birth of the incomparable Nelson Mandela.

These are not just moments in an official calendar nor merely memorable milestones perched sentient on the side lines of our progress.  No.  They are the echo-chambers we need for majestic promises made and of extraordinary examples provided.  For, in tone and temper, today’s world, in which power is cynically instrumentalised for self-aggrandisement and authority is abused for self-gain, offers us but a mean, rude and dishonouring contrast to those gifts which rightly we should memorialise.

By virtue of the year in which we meet, the purpose that draws us all here, and the banner under which you have laboured these past days, here in this place – this chamber - of human rights’ symbol, authority  and promise, we honor specifically the gift to the world that is the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela and of all that he represents; his unique part in the unrelenting effort of so many to liberate the people of South Africa and of millions too far beyond its borders, from the scourge of a hateful political, economic and social system rooted in race-based differentiation, such that degradation of the majority and unjust elevation of the rest, was embedded even in law, defended even by the judiciary, justified even by leadership of highest office, both within and beyond Africa’s southernmost state.

Earlier this year, we met too here in the Council’s chamber, to again celebrate Freedom Day in recollection that, 23 years ago this year, 19.7 million South Africans for the first time by exercise of their rights unimpeded, participated freely in the country’s first non-racial democratic elections:  three hundred years of colonialism, of raced based segregation and white minority rule struck a death blow, as ballot paper after ballot paper slipped into place a newly free South Africa and democratic government, led by Nelson Mandela.

Of course, this transformation of him – by democratic election – into a “president” was a major milestone in his “long march to freedom”, but his was a journey first from petitioner to persecuted to prisoner to president.  And it was not Nelson Mandela who was transformed by that journey, as much as it was he - in his steadfastness along with that of his comrades – who transformed the world around them.

The acid rain of discrimination, violence, disrespect; of unfair trail, arbitrary detention, torture; of decades long intimidation of family and friend and of deprivation of liberty, fell hard and heavy on the rock of this man and still he did not bow; he would not break, disintegrate or dissolve and still he would not hate.  He did not call the migrant “animals”.  He did not seek the separation of the child from their families.

We rightly celebrate him as a head of state and critically, as the first democratically elected president of a liberated South Africa, be we must do much more than recall him only in these positions of power.  For, life cast him many other roles and for far, far longer; roles of the very kind that today so many in formal power seek not to celebrate but to crush. 

For Madiba was first a jurist.  A man of law, who loved justice and saw beauty and grace in just arbitrage.  In his struggle for freedom, he went first to the courts.  He understood well the essentiality of law as a tool for just adjudication of rights; and he courageously sought to use law to defend universal rights against national attack.

He then was made, by force of circumstance and conscience, both a resistor and a human rights defender.  When the institutions of the state failed to uphold his rightful pleas for equality in the face of discrimination; for equal access to essential services in the face of their deliberate denial; when the courts refused to recognize his claims against race-based identity cards and race-based bars on freedom of movement and association, he and his comrades took up the tools of civil society to speak out, to organize protest, to amplify demand and to expose, denounce and subvert the moral corruption of the apartheid regime - with its constant, callous and vicious violations of the state’s obligations as duty bearer to its people.

Then that same state made of him a political prisoner - through unfair trial, under illegitimate law, detaining him under weight of disproportionate sentence, originally under threat of the death penalty, commuted then to what would amount to 27 years of wrongful deprivation of that liberty which was his right – as it was the right of all others likewise imprisoned by that same callous hatred.

Despite the isolation of his prison island, its walls and barb wire, and constraints of his cell, Mandela became philosopher and teacher.  Though his body literally was enchained, none could imprison his mind nor contain his heart or silence his longing.  The more his silence was sought, the sharper shone his light - so that in time, even his prison guards became his supporters – to be present even at his inauguration.

And, from that prison Madiba emerged peace maker and politician – not as cruelty’s casualty, nor twisted into resentment or by lust for revenge, but a man of bountiful, mysterious energy, driven by a vision for a democratic, justice loving South Africa that he had imagined so well for so long and so fully that - while jailed - it is as if he almost willed that vision into being. 

In the face of despair, he constructed courage.  In the face of hate, he chose not to be deterred in his determined inclusive regard for others.  In the face of cruelty to himself, he chose not to nurse revenge.  In the face of law’s opposition backed by the State’s violence, he sought negotiation that, of course, drew from the then President de Klerk, a fist lowered into an arm outstretched.

Of all the lessons by which his example can be said to instruct us, surely these few stand out – the particular pernicious cruel consequence when rule by law betrays the rule of law; the critical role of civil society and human rights defenders when the state so betrays; and the triumph that disciplined, robust, resilient, courageous - not puny - hope provides over cheap, mean, brutal hate.

Rule by law can do such egregious harm.  Mandela did not go into prison a president – he went into prison judged a terrorist.  How many Mandelas languish as dissenters in our jails, locked up without their right to fair trial met?  How many Mandelas have seen the inside of the torture chamber, of the isolation cell?  How many Mandelas await the illegitimate conclusion of their sentencing to death row?  

But the rule of law – that is the basalt of just, fair, inclusive, sustainable society. 

2018 is a year of instruction.  Among its annals of remarkable anniversary, there stands one more to be mentioned here - for 2018 is also the 50 years anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King.  In a speech given in the final months of his short life, he asserted this: “... it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me …. while the law may not change hearts …, it does change habits … if it is vigorously enforced, and through changes in habits, pretty soon attitudinal changes will take place and then, even the heart may be changed.”

Madiba too was a heart changer.  And he famously believed education to be a most powerful weapon for change for the better.   It is the exercise and celebration of those powers for change – law and education – that we are gathered here.  As you conclude and rightly celebrate your time together, please do reflect with us also on this class room of human history: in which we have failed many tests.  Please know that tough exams are set for us and that tougher ones still lie ahead.  Yet, please be confident.  For we have the gift of this example of one who so well excelled, who overcame far greater obstacles than we are likely ever to encounter, who stood taller even as the burdens of injustice were piled ever higher on his shoulders.  In that sense, Madiba is our “crib sheet”; a “cheat sheet” of the highest integrity.   We need not look any further, in order to study any more effectively, so as to learn any more clearly, just how to lead so much for the better. 

 And by the way, he danced well too.