Remarks at the UN General Assembly Observation of the Annual Nelson Mandela International Day (via VTC)

Ambassador Cherith Norman Chalet
Acting Deputy Permanent Representative
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York, New York
July 20, 2020


Mr. President, thank you very much, and Mr. Secretary-General, Excellencies, thank you for this opportunity to participate in this important celebration of the life and legacy of President Nelson Mandela.

At the outset, I would like to join others and offer my deepest condolences to the Mandela family and to the people of South Africa on the loss of Zindzi Mandela. Her lifelong commitment to justice and equality, and how she carried her father’s legacy, sacrifice, and struggle, will be remembered and cherished by all freedom-loving people.

The United States further mourns the loss of American Congressman John Lewis, a man whose courage and decades of public service changed our country forever. He will be remembered as a giant of the civil rights movement whose selflessness and conviction rendered our nation into a more perfect union. Upon Nelson Mandela’s passing in 2013, Congressman Lewis had reflected on his first meeting with Mandela, writing:

“The first time I had a chance to meet him was in South Africa after his release from prison. He gave me this unbelievable hug. I will never forget it. He said, ‘John Lewis, I know all about you. You inspired us.’ To which John Lewis said, ‘No, Mr. Mandela, you inspired us.’ He said, ‘The struggle continues.’ I felt unworthy, really, to be standing at his side. I knew I was in the presence of greatness.”

Congressman Lewis went on to say, “President Nelson Mandela must be looked upon as a modern-day saint. He was a giant of a man. Even those who opposed him could not help but admire and deeply respect him. His redemptive, unearned suffering, his dedication to the philosophy and discipline of non-violence, and his magnificent grace are a testimony to the power and endurance of the human spirit.”

Mandela himself once said: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” These words speak to the character of one of the great champions of recent history. After suffering 27 years as a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela remained committed to the struggle for equality.

Over the course of many decades, Nelson Mandela strove for justice in words and deeds. In addition to playing a leading role in defeating Apartheid and ushering in a new era for the people of South Africa, President Mandela was a global leader in ending stigma against persons with HIV/AIDS and promoting the search for a cure to this disease. He served as a champion for eradicating poverty. His efforts continue to inspire our ongoing pursuit of a world that is more just, fair, and free.

President Mandela also taught us how to achieve accountability with compassion, ensuring respect for the rights of all while promoting national reconciliation and healing. His personal struggle and rise to prominence provide a beacon of hope across this world, demonstrating that every society has the potential to achieve inclusive democracy, and respect for equality and fundamental freedoms.

This year, as we fight an unprecedented pandemic, the lessons of Nelson Mandela continue to guide us. We must ensure our response to this crisis respects the human rights of everyone. We cannot forget the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized as we combat this threat. Rather, we must follow Mandela’s lead and ensure the needs of all members of our societies are addressed, and that no nation uses the pandemic as an excuse to constrain universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. President Mandela was a proud champion of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief. Only if we protect these fundamental freedoms and act with the utmost transparency can we hope to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, let us commit to re-doubling our efforts, following in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps, to build a more free, democratic, and just world.

Thank you very much.