Building on the Legacy of Nelson Mandela

"We can in fact change the world and make of it a better place." - Nelson Mandela

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Nelson Mandela and the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres meet in Lisbon, Portugal, in October 1993. Photo: Carlos Marques/LUSA

"Each of us can make a difference in promoting peace, human rights, sustainable development, and lives of dignity for all. Each of us can be inspired by Nelson Mandela's example. Let us all build on the legacy of Nelson Mandela." - United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres

Nelson Mandela embodied the highest values of the United Nations.

To honour his legacy on the promotion of social justice, the fight against poverty, and the promotion of a culture of peace throughout the world, the United Nations General Assembly in 2009 proclaimed Nelson Mandela's birthday, 18 July, as "Nelson Mandela International Day," devoting the day to public service. Individuals around the world are asked to mark Nelson Mandela International Day by making a difference in their communities.

Every day, the United Nations works for peace, human rights and sustainable development for everyone everywhere. Due to the powers vested in its Charter and its unique international character, the United Nations is exceptionally well placed to address issues confronting humanity in the 21st century, including disarmament, climate change, humanitarian crises, health emergencies, gender equality, and more.

Its success very much depends on passionate, principled, courageous and responsible leadership such as shown by Nelson Mandela.

As the UN marks its 75th anniversary in 2020, the world faces an unprecedented threat as the COVID-19 pandemic endangers everyone, everywhere. As always in times of crisis, the vulnerable suffer first and worst. It is more urgent than ever to reflect on the life and work of Nelson Mandela, who embodied the highest values of the United Nations.

In the face of these challenges, world leaders need to recognize the vital importance of unity and solidarity. Only together we can fend off the common threat and build back better with more sustainable, inclusive, gender-equal societies and economies around shared values, shared responsibility, shared sovereignty, shared progress.

Nelson Mandela reminded us: "As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest."

"The great challenge of our age to the United Nations Organization is to answer the question — given the interdependence of the nations of the world, what is it that we can and must do to ensure that democracy, peace and prosperity prevail everywhere."

Nelson Mandela in an address to the United Nations General Assembly (3 October 1994)

Nelson Mandela, Deputy President of the African National Congress, addresses the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid in New York — his first appearance before the Organization. UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran (22 June 1990)

Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa, enters the United Nations General Assembly Hall to address its fifty-third session. At his side is United Nations Chief of Protocol, Nadia Younes. UN Photo/Evan Schneider (21 September 1998)



“Peace is not just the absence of conflict; peace is the creation of an environment where all can flourish, regardless of race, colour, creed, religion, gender, class, caste, or any other social markers of difference”


– Nelson Mandela to the Global Convention on Peace and Nonviolence, New Delhi, India (31 January 2004)

The United Nations came into being in 1945, following the devastation of the Second World War, with a primary mission: the maintenance of international peace and security. The UN does this by working to prevent conflict; helping parties in conflict make peace; peacekeeping; and creating the conditions to allow peace to hold and flourish.

A Rwandan police officer of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is greeted by women and children while on patrol in Gao, Mali. UN Photo/Marco Dormino (15 May 2014)

Peacekeeping has proven to be one of the most effective tools available to the UN to assist host countries in navigating the difficult path from conflict to peace. Since 1948, more than a million women and men from over 120 countries have served as UN peacekeepers. Every day, they make a tangible difference in the lives of millions of the world's most vulnerable people.

The United Nations Secretary-General's 2020 report on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace calls for more diplomacy, dialogue and mediation to head off conflicts before they break out, putting prevention at the heart of the UN's work.


Nelson Mandela, facilitator of the Burundi Peace Process, visits UN Headquarters in New York to brief the Security Council on the situation in Burundi. Following the Council meeting, Mr. Mandela (centre) meets with correspondents at the press stakeout near the Council Chamber. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe (29 September 2000)

Did you know?

On 24 September 2018, world leaders gathered at United Nations Headquarters in New York for the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit. At the Summit, nearly 100 Heads of State and Government, Ministers, Member States and representatives of civil society participants adopted a political declaration committed to redoubling efforts to build a just, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and fair world, as they paid tribute to the late South African President’s celebrated qualities and service to humanity. Recognizing the period from 2019 to 2028 as the Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace, the Declaration saluted Mr. Mandela for his humility, forgiveness and compassion, acknowledging as well his contribution to the struggle for democracy and the promotion of a culture of peace throughout the world.



“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”


– Nelson Mandela at a joint meeting of the United States Congress, Washington DC (26 June 1990)

"The challenge posed by the next 50 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the next century whose character it must help to fashion, consists in whether humanity, and especially those who will occupy positions of leadership, will have the courage to ensure that, at last, we build a human world consistent with the provisions of that historic Declaration and other human rights instruments that have been adopted since 1948."

Nelson Mandela on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (21 September 1998)

Nelson Mandela’s and a baby's hands. Photo: Nelson Mandela Foundation/Peter Moray

The promotion and protection of human rights is a key purpose and guiding principle of the United Nations. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid out universal values and a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. Today it is the most translated document in the world.

After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990 and negotiated with State President F. W. de Klerk the end of apartheid in South Africa, bringing peace to a racially divided country and leading the fight for human rights around the world.

Nelson Mandela, President of the African National Congress (ANC), casting the ballot in his country's first all-race elections, at Ohlange High School near Durban. UN Photo/Chris Sattlberger (1 April 1994)

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. The rights to equality and non-discrimination are cornerstones of human rights law. Yet racism, xenophobia and intolerance are problems prevalent in all societies, and discriminatory practices are widespread. States are urged to take measures to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and to promote tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity.

Did you know?

The elimination of South Africa’s system of legalized racial discrimination known as apartheid ("apart-ness" in the Afrikaans language of the descendants of the first Dutch settlers) was on the agenda of the United Nations from its inception. Over the decades, the world body contributed to the global struggle against apartheid by drawing world attention to the inhumanity of the system, legitimizing popular resistance, promoting anti-apartheid actions by governmental and non-governmental organizations, instituting an arms embargo, and supporting an oil embargo and boycotts of apartheid.



“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”


– Nelson Mandela at a Live 8 concert, Johannesburg, South Africa (2 July 2005)

In 2015, United Nations Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Governments, businesses and civil society together with the United Nations are mobilizing efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda by 2030. Universal, inclusive and indivisible, the Agenda calls for action by all countries to improve the lives of people everywhere.

The Decade of Action calls for accelerating sustainable solutions to all the world’s biggest challenges — ranging from poverty and gender to climate change, inequality and closing the finance gap.

Did you know?

Extreme poverty rates have been cut by more than half since 1990. But more than 8% of the world’s population, or close to 700 million people, still live on less than $1.90 a day, according to the latest global estimates.

Source: UN Secretary-General’s 2020 report on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

"The fight against AIDS goes beyond the physical and physiological; it challenges our thinking and our approach to many aspects of life. … Let us start [the war against AIDS] by breaking the silence around the issue of HIV/AIDS. Stigmatization and silence are as serious killers as the virus itself."

Nelson Mandela at the Youth Forum on HIV/AIDS, Kenya (22 September 2003)

The United Nations Secretariat Building is lit with the Red AIDS ribbon, demonstrating the Organization's commitment to the battle against HIV/AIDS, and to spotlight the General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS on June 25-27 2001. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe (23 June 2001)

Did you know?

In 2018, there were 37.9 million people living with HIV. About 62% of them had access to treatment. The extraordinary scale-up of antiretroviral treatment has reduced AIDS-related deaths by more than 56% since the peak in 2004. Since 2010, new HIV infections among adults declined by an estimated 16%, from 2.1 million to 1.7 million in 2018.

Source: UNAIDS

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

Nelson Mandela at the launch of Mindset Network, Johannesburg, South Africa (16 July 2003)

Photo: Nelson Mandela Foundation/Benny Gool

Did you know?

Despite considerable progress in primary school enrolment over the last two decades, 258 million children, adolescents, and youth aged 6 to 17 were still out of school in 2018, representing 17% of the global population of this age group.

Sources: UN Secretary-General's 2020 report on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

"As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure."

Nelson Mandela on National Women’s Day, South Africa (9 August 1996)

Students of the Alfaki Abdallah Albigawi Basic Level School for girls in El Fasher (North Darfur) commemorate Nelson Mandela International Day, organized by the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). UN Photo/Albert González Farran (18 July 2011)

Did you know?

Globally, the percentage of women in parliament has increased from 19% in 2010 to around 24.9% in 2020. Only 28% of managerial positions in the world were occupied by women in 2019 (a small increase from 25% in 2000). On an average day, women spend about three times as many hours on unpaid domestic and care work as men, and significantly more if they have children.

Source: UN Secretary-General's 2020 report on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

"That our government has made significant progress in bringing potable water nearer to so many more people than was previously the case, I rate amongst the most important achievements of democracy in our country."

Nelson Mandela at the opening of the WaterDome during the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa (28 August 2002)

Women in Pô, Burkina Faso, returning home from a community well with containers full of water. UN Photo/Ray Witlin

Did you know?

Globally, in 2017, 2.2 billion people lacked safely managed drinking water, 4.2 billion lacked safely managed sanitation, and 3 billion people lacked soap and water at home. 47% of schools worldwide lacked handwashing facilities with soap and water and 40% of health care facilities were not equipped to practice hand hygiene.

Source: UN Secretary-General's 2020 report on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals



“It is in your hands to make of the world a better place.”


– Nelson Mandela


The UN Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize. Designed by the UN Graphic Design Unit. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize, established by General Assembly resolution 68/275 of 6 June 2014, is an honorary award presented once every five years as a tribute to the outstanding achievements of two individuals (one female and one male) from different geographic regions. The Prize recognizes the South African leader's contributions to democracy, justice and reconciliation and his dedication to the service of humanity.

Mrs. Marianna V. Vardinoyannis

Dr. Morrissanda Kouyaté

The Prize is awarded for the second time in 2020, to Mrs. Marianna V. Vardinoyannis of Greece, philanthropist and world advocate for human rights and the protection of children's health and welfare. She is a Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO since 1999, founder and president of "Marianna V. Vardinoyannis Foundation" and of "ELPIDA Friends' Association of Children with cancer". For more than 30 years, she has been fighting against childhood cancer and for a world without borders in health, helping thousands of children to be cured and Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté of Guinea, a leading advocate on ending violence against women and girls in Africa and Executive Director of the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices (IAC). He initiated efforts that resulted in an African regional instrument on ending violence against women. Dr. Kouyaté carried out exceptional efforts in the fight against harmful traditional practices, particularly the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation.

Helena Ndume of Namibia and Jorge Fernando Branco Sampaio of Portugal, the winners of the first United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize, at the award ceremony on 24 July 2015. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

It was awarded for the first time in 2015, to Dr. Helena Ndume of Namibia and H.E. Mr. Jorge Fernando Branco Sampaio of Portugal. Dr. Ndume is an ophthalmologist whose life's work has been the treatment of blindness and eye-related illnesses, both in Namibia and throughout the developing world. Mr. Branco Sampaio became a leader in the struggle for the restoration of democracy in Portugal and served as Deputy Minister for External Co-operation, as Mayor of Lisbon from 1989 to 1995, and as President of the Republic from 1996 to 2006.


Detainees at Bamyan Central Prison, Afghanistan. UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

To honour the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison in the course of his struggle for global human rights, equality, democracy and the promotion of a culture of peace, the United Nations General Assembly in resolution 70/175 of 17 December 2015 adopted a revised set of the "United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners," to be known as "the Nelson Mandela Rules." The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) serves as the custodian of these rules for the humane treatment of prisoners.


Nelson Mandela Foundation/Alet van Huyssteen

18 July 1918 Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela born in Mvezo, South Africa
1944 Joins the African National Congress (ANC)
1944 Founds the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) with others
1948 Elected as National Secretary of the ANCYL
1952 Launch of the "Defiance" Campaign, a massive civil disobedience campaign against unjust laws.
Mandela is elected National Volunteer-in-Chief for the campaign
1956 to 1961 Mandela one of 156 accused in the Treason Trial
21 March 1960 Sharpeville massacre, during which 69 men, women and children are killed and about 200 wounded. The government soon declares a state of emergency and arrests about 18,000 protesters. The ANC is banned and Mandela goes underground.
1961 Formation of the ANC's armed movement, Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), with Mandela as commander-in-chief.
1962 Mandela travels to other parts of Africa and Europe
5 August 1962 Mandela arrested for illegal exit from the country and incitement to strike. He is convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment.
July 1963 Arrest of prominent ANC leaders at Rivonia. Mandela is accused with them
12 June 1964 Sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island (later moved to Pollsmoor Prison and then Victor Verster Prison)
1985 Amidst prolonged mass protests against the apartheid system, the ANC initiates talks with the regime
February 1990 Released from prison
1993 Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with F.W. de Klerk)
27 April 1994 First multi-racial elections held in South Africa with full enfranchisement, with the ANC winning a strong majority
10 May 1994 Inaugurated as South Africa's first democratically elected president, standing down in 1999 after one term
5 December 2013 Nelson Mandela passed away in Johannesburg at the age of 95