On this date in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years in captivity. He was regularly visited by the ICRC during his long years of detention.
In 2003, a week before his 85th birthday, Mr. Mandela spoke about the work of the ICRC and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement in London, saying that the Red Cross was a “beacon of humanity” for political prisoners.
Twenty-three years after his release from prison, here is the full text of Madiba’s wonderful British Red Cross Humanity Lecture of July 10, 2003.
“It is a great honour to be have been invited to deliver this Red Cross Humanity Lecture.
Not only does the Red Cross hold a special place in our collective sense of ourselves as a globally caring community; to me personally, and those who shared the experience of being political prisoners, the Red Cross was a beacon of humanity within the dark inhumane world of political imprisonment.
The improvements in the conditions of our imprisonment at Robben Island were to a large measure due to the pressure that the mere presence of the Red Cross brought to bear on our jailer-regime. It says much for the moral weight of the Red Cross that even the apartheid regime, which was in so many other respects indifferent to world opinion, found itself cowed and pressurised by this organisation.
It teaches a lesson that those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty; evil ultimately lives in fear of and under threat from the uncompromising commitment to justice, fairness and humane compassion.
The history of the world, also in the last two centuries, had unfortunately been a story of too many wars with all the attendant cruelty of humankind against humankind. The twenty-first century, which so many hoped would at last be the century of the triumph of world peace and global caring, has not started too promisingly. Conflicts still plague many areas on the globe, and we have seen the emergence of unilateral superpower military interventions.
In the midst of bloodshed and war, of animosity and pain, hatred and conflict, the Red Cross has carried the flag of the belief in our common humanity; and lived out that belief in action in conditions and circumstances where the opposite sentiment dominated.
The Geneva Conventions and its successor conventions, grown out of the International Red Cross, continue to remind us most forcefully of our common obligation to care for each other even, and particularly, in conditions that foster behaviour to the contrary. These conventions are a call to caring multilateralism. They tell us, more powerfully than all the political treaties, of the strength of multilateralism and international consensus.
We have found ourselves compelled to speak out strongly in recent months against the rise of unilateralism in world affairs. We publicly and in private expresse d our sharp differences on this matter with Prime Minister Blair and President Bush, both young leaders whom we otherwise hold in high regard.
The differences we have on this matter, particularly as manifested in the war against Iraq, are not simply issues of political difference. I am a retired old man, without any office or political influence or any desire to such office or influence. I have lived through almost the entire twentieth century, in a country and continent where we had to devote almost all of that life to struggling against a social and political legacy left by events of the nineteenth century. To see young political leaders of the developed world in the twenty-first century act in ways that undermine some of the noblest attempts of humanity to deal with those historical legacies, pains me greatly and makes me worry immensely about our future.
That is the nature of my difference with them and my criticism against them. In a world still so grossly unequal, both in material terms and in terms of power and influence, our hope for orderly co-existence lies in global co-operation and an uncompromising multilateral approach to dealing with our problems, conflicts, differences and challenges.
For almost one and a half centuries the International Red Cross had stood as such an organ of international and multilateral co-operation. To be here with you is a proud affirmation of the values of global co-operation and respect for the basic human rights of all, irrespective of all social or national differences. We salute you and join with you in this quest for human solidarity and caring.
When one speaks of the great role the International Red Cross has played one tends to think particularly of its noble part during times of war.
There is a new war of global dimensions underway that we cannot neglect mentioning in this context. We are referring to the war against HIV/AIDS.
AIDS represents a tragedy of unprecedented proportions unfolding particularly in Africa, but with incidence and effect across the globe. AIDS today in Africa is claiming more lives than the sumtotal of all wars, famines and floods, and the ravages of such deadly diseases as malaria. It is devastating families and communities; overwhelming and depleting health care services; and robbing schools of both students and teachers.
Business has suffered losses of personnel, productivity and profits; economic growth is being undermined and scarce development resources have to be diverted to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.
HIV/AIDS is having a devastating impact on families, communities, societies and economies. Decades have been chopped from life expectancy and young child mortality is expected to more than double in the most severely affected countries of Africa. AIDS is clearly a disaster, effectively wiping out the development gains of the past decades and sabotaging the future.
It is no less than a war, a world war that affects all of us ultimately. The developing world is, as in so many other cases , suffering the worst while having the least resources to deal with the threat. Once more, an organisation like the International Red Cross and its national chapters can play a huge role in mobilising world opinion and resources to help combat this terrible and threatening scourge.
We are in this modern globalised world each the keeper of our brother and sister. We have too often failed that moral calling. The International Red Cross had been both our conscience and the source of redeeming us in this regard.
I thank you for that in my personal capacity and from my personal experience together with my fellow political prisoners. I am certain that a world wishing for the better of our human nature to triumph and prevail, thanks you as much.
May you see this third century in which you operate, truly becoming the one in which all human beings across the globe will at last enjoy a better life.
I thank you.”