In the name of Mandela, ‘we cannot accept injustice’


We welcome the broad sentiments in the political declaration that governments have agreed for this United Nations Mandela Peace Summit.

But the truth is, we have heard it before. These are words that get repeated time and time again without the political will, urgency, determination and courage to make them a reality, to make them really count.

We must make them count. Not tomorrow but right now. Because we are facing multiple crises around the world, with people suffering on an unimaginable scale.

Without action, without strong and principled leadership, I fear for them. I fear for all of us.

Let us remember that Madiba spent most of his life as a civil society activist. Yet today, as we gather here to honour him, thousands of activists and human rights defenders around the world are imprisoned or have been tortured and killed.

They include trade unionists, people from nongovernmental organisations, social movements and religious communities, journalists and those from the arts and culture field.

In far too many countries civic space has been shut down and the right of people to participate actively and freely in public life taken away from them.

The preamble of the founding charter of the United Nations starts with “we the peoples”, not we the member states of the UN.

And we the people should never allow ourselves to accept injustice. As Martin Luther King Jr once said: “I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to racial discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few when millions of God’s children are smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in an affluent society.”

I call on you today, with the spirit of Madiba hanging over us all:

  • Not to adjust to the inhumane way we have been treating millions of refugees around the world;
  • Not to adjust to the Rohingya population living in an open-air prison under a system of apartheid;
  • Not to adjust to the Palestinians in Gaza living under a relentless military blockade which keeps them in poverty and misery;
  • Not to adjust to the centuries-old subjugation of Indigenous peoples;
  • Not to adjust to leaders who espouse xenophobic, fascist narratives, or demean and undermine women; and
  • Not to adjust to the systematic exclusion of people living with disabilities, nor to the continuing struggle and marginalisation of children and youth everywhere.

For humanity must not judge itself on the progress of the most powerful but on the welfare of its most vulnerable.

We should not adjust to the dismal failure of the powerful to protect civilians in conflict.

Not to adjust to the bloodbaths we have seen in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in South Sudan and elsewhere. It is shameful that some governments preach peace while aggressively selling the very arms, which prolong civilian suffering.

We particularly must not adjust to the deadlocks that continue to haunt the UN security council, whose five permanent members too often use their powers not to prevent and stop suffering but shield themselves and others committing the worst crimes.

We should not adjust to disgraceful levels of impunity and instead insist on full accountability for gross violations of human rights and crimes against humanity.

We urge a renewed respect for UN conventions and norms that have been painstakingly developed, on this the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and on the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute, which gave birth to the International Criminal Court.

And we should not adjust to continuing inaction on averting catastrophic climate change, while thousands are regularly devastated by extreme weather events from the Philippines to Puerto Rico, and while some small island nations face an imminent threat to their very existence.

To the one leader who still denies climate change: we insist you start putting yourself on the right side of history.

Brothers and sisters, the time for bold and courageous action is now. To my fellow activists and advocates, I know what you are facing but I implore you not to give up. Let the words of Madiba inspire and guide you: “Courage is not the absence of fear but the overcoming of it.”

And to our political leaders, we honour Madiba by picking up the mantle of his struggles. The political declaration being adopted here today is an opportunity for renewed commitment in these troubled times.

Think of the most powerless people in the world who will live or die from your choices. Do not disappoint them.

This is an edited version of a speech by Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, at the Mandela Peace Summit in New York on September 24

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