Opening address by President Nelson Mandela at the 2nd Conference of African National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Durban

1 July 1998

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Mrs. Mary Robinson,
Chairman of the African Commission on Human & Peoples' Rights, Mr Youssoupha Ndiaye,
Members of Human Rights Commissions from throughout Africa;
Ladies and Gentlemen:

Allow me to thank you most sincerely for inviting me to open this conference.

South Africa feels privileged indeed to host such a prestigious gathering dedicated to considering how human rights in Africa can be promoted and protected.

First, I wish to warmly welcome you to South Africa. For us, your presence confirms that the sacrifices of the struggle for liberation have indeed re-united South Africa with our continent and with the international community.

Those sacrifices were shared by all of Africa, determined that none of her children could be free until all were liberated. With the demise of apartheid we can proudly say that political sovereignty has been returned to our Continent.

The achievement of our freedom was assisted too by the insistence of the international community that the rights it recognised as universal should indeed apply equally and fully to all peoples everywhere.

As we were united in struggle, we are now collectively seized with the responsibilities that freedom brings. The experience of all peoples is that their freedom remains fragile and their rights empty shells unless they bring real improvements to the lives of ordinary people.

We are therefore challenged, as individual countries and jointly as a continent, to use our collective resources to banish the poverty, disease, illiteracy and homelessness which millions experience as their daily lives. We must co-operate to ensure peace and prosperity for the peoples of Africa. We must extend the opportunities for the advancement of knowledge. We must pool our resources and our sovereignty so that Africa's presence is felt in the economic, social and political councils of the world.

All these things, we are obliged to seek by our commitment to make a reality of the rights which have been won with Africa's blood.

There is more, and it is no less important. While it is true that dictatorship has never succeeded in permanently suppressing the human spirit in its unquenchable thirst for freedom, the attempt to do so has often exacted a terrible cost. As free peoples it is our duty to do what we can to ensure that such suffering shall never again be the price of freedom. To that end we are required to nurture and to strengthen laws and institutions whose express purpose is the promotion and protection of human rights.

We therefore receive you, representatives of Africa's national human rights institutions, with special pleasure. As latecomers to freedom there is much that we can learn from you, who can impart to us the lessons learnt in the struggles of others for the realisation of those universal principles we share.

Our constitution enshrines the vision of a society founded on the values of "human dignity, the achievement of human rights and freedoms," values spelt out in our justiciable Bill of Rights. Reflecting the deepest aspirations of our people, it creates an obligation on the state to "respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights in the Bill of Rights."

It expressly enjoins our government, as does the mandate of the people of South Africa, with the responsibility of securing those rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. It has been like a lodestone, guiding us as we grapple with the total transformation of our society in order to address the legacy of a system founded on principles of inequality and oppression.

The eradication of that legacy, in the form of poverty and other forms of social inequality will occupy us for years to come. But our society is mobilised to do battle against the evils that diminish our freedoms and inhibit our rights. South Africans are united as never before around government's policies for bringing social services to those denied them in the past; combating crime and violence; unleashing the rich potential of our people; or putting our economy on the path to sustained growth in the competitive and turbulent global economy.

We take pride too in the institutions in support of our democracy which our constitution requires - amongst them the Commissions on Human Rights and Gender Equality, and a Public Protector. Still to be set up is the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, central to South Africa's own history.

The independence of these institutions, which are subject only to the constitution and the law, is fundamental to their role. In their short life they have confirmed South Africans in their desire to have such organs outside of government, to help them make government accountable and to protect their rights.

Government values them too, and values their independence, as indispensable to democracy. Co-operation between government and state institutions is well illustrated in the process now leading to the adoption of a National Action Plan for Human Rights later this year. It is one practical and concrete contribution to our marking of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The plan will help formulate strategies for the effective implementation of human rights norms, set clear targets and benchmarks for human rights promotion in our country, and define structures of accountability for government and for civil society. It is, for us, another tool for ensuring a better life for all. Since human rights are integral to good government, the National Action Plan involves all government in an interactive relationship with structures of civil society.

Ladies and gentlemen;

No country exists in isolation and in our modern world even our conception of our sovereignty has been strongly mediated by our recognition of interdependence. South Africa's concern with human rights could therefore not remain only at the national level. Those constitutional principles referred to have also guided our international relations.

We have reformulated ourselves and our international relations as an integral part of the African reality. And we have sought to add our voice to those working to promote democracy and good governance on our continent so that Africa can become a place of peace, political stability and prosperity. We have together with others on the continent sought to strengthen the voice of Africa for the good and well being of humanity.

Three vital developments, two African and one more global, deserve mention in this regard.

The first is the adoption of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the establishment of an African Court of Human Rights. Even as signatories of the African Charter we are mindful of the inadequacies of enforcement mechanisms in the Charter. An independent court with meaningful powers to call us as states to account was for that reason a crucial advance. We would wish to urge all states to sigh as speedily as possible so that the protocol can be ratified.

The second development is the conference on human rights due to take place in Luanda, Angola, in October. It will hopefully bring the collective voice of Africa to bear on the need to refine our instruments for the enforcement of human rights and the protection of citizens against violations. The principle that the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights belongs to the state, remains invaluable. We are confident that this conference will provide a further platform for African states to clearly and openly assume this responsibility.

The third development referred to is the process which we hope will lead to the establishment of an International Criminal Court. We have sought to ensure that the ICC is guaranteed independence and bestowed with adequate powers. Our own continent has suffered enough horrors emanating from the inhumanity of human beings towards human beings. Who knows, many of these might not have occurred, or at least been minimised, had there been an effectively functioning International Criminal Court.

Mr Chairperson, I have taken advantage of your Conference to touch upon a number of matters of significance for Africa. The eyes of the people of our Continent presently suffering through wars and threats of war or through the subversion of democracy by military dictatorship; who go burdened under famine and hunger of epidemic proportions; or whose chances for a decent life are undermined by endemic corruption. Look to you in hope.

They hope that through you the better side of Africa will shine brightly. The Africa of caring and community, of fairness and justice, of sharing and generosity, the Africa of ubuntu. The Africa of peace, justice and human dignity. The Africa that must rise from the ashes. The Africa that shall be reborn.

Mr Chairperson, it gives me great pleasure to declare this Second Conference of African National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights open.

I thank you.

Issued by: Office of the President

Source: South African Government Information Website