A life-size statue of Nelson Mandela was unveiled at the United Nations headquarters on Monday as the body declared 2019-2028 as the "Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace" and issued a political declaration to promote disarmament.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the current South African president and Mr Mandela’s chosen political heir, fumbled as he wedged a national flag into the impressive bronze with outstretched arms. Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, stepped in to affix the emblem.
Mr Ramaphosa told the gathering of world leaders, who are in New York for the annual General Assembly meetings, that Mr Mandela’s question why nuclear weapons cannot be abolished remained unanswered nearly thirty years after he made a high profile challenge to the world community.
“The truth is there can be no justification for the existence of weapons that carry with them the potential to extinguish life on this planet,” he said. “We hope the summit will give expression to the Secretary-General's call for a "surge in diplomacy”.
The declaration adopted at Monday's peace summit identified the personal qualities of Mr Mandela, who spent decades in prison for his stand on Apartheid, that made him a transcendent humanitarian. "Humility, forgiveness and compassion,” were listed and connected to UN goals, including disarmament, human rights, and poverty alleviation.
“We will never see his likes again,” declared the co-sponsor, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar. “I believe the legacy of Nelson Mandela points to a deeper truth. A voice may be silenced by death, but its message can never be suppressed. It is heard for all time. And it finds a home in the hearts and the minds and the values of those who follow afterwards.”
The “Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace,” which starts next year, seeks to focus the world leaders on the need to “redouble efforts to pursue international peace and security, development and human rights”. It also marks the centenary of his birth and a life of consequence on the world stage.
South Africa is the leading voice for UN reform that would place the entire assembly as the prime decision-making power. It has taken a rotating seat on the smaller Security Council, which is dominated by the five veto-wielding powers, to advance that agenda.
Monday’s declaration, which was adopted without dissent, also warns of "challenges to the primacy of multilateralism”. In the current news cycle that could be interpreted as a rebuke to the divisive nationalist policy turn in both American and Europe.
As a result, the declaration's signatories recognise "that the world has changed significantly since the founding of the United Nations, and acknowledge that global peace eludes us to this day," it said.
Adding a note of ambition and idealism, the declaration adds "we must make the impossible possible”.
The inspiration provided by South Africa’s peaceful transition from pariah to rainbow nation is clear – the document singles out South Africa for praise, remembering the country's dismantling of its nuclear weapons program and Mr Mandela's appeal for the "total elimination of nuclear weapons”.
The global recognition comes at troubled time for the rainbow nation with the ruling African National Congress besieged by the lack of economic progress by the majority. Mr Mandela’s successors have also abandoned parts of his legacy, most remarkably in its attempt in 2016 to withdraw from the International Criminal Court.
A South African court later ruled against the move to pull out of the Hague-based tribunal, which was launched in 2002 and pursues perpetrators of the world's atrocities. Mandela had been a strong advocate for the court's creation.
However, Lindiwe Sisulu, a South African cabinet minister, wrote that the events would entrench the Mandela legacy. “The summit is an opportunity for all UN members to rally behind the global support for sustainable peace and curbing violent conflict on the African continent and other hotspots in the world, as espoused by former President Mandela and in line with the African Union’s (AU) aspirations of silencing the guns by 2020 and the broader development objectives set out in the AU’s Agenda 2063,” she said in an editorial South Africa’s Independent newspaper.
“The Mandela statue, which we presented to the UN and the world, will be a constant reminder of the Mandela legacy and what he stood for in the pursuance of peaceful resolution of conflict, promotion of human rights and sustainable development.”