Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Amid the blizzard of media commentary, it is still important that we remember here the contributions that Nelson Mandela made to the concept of a “just security.” I had the great good fortune of meeting him once, at the United Nations in 2000. Richard Holbrooke, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, had invited the President to address the Security Council at the start of the new Millennium. When Mandela entered the prep room, we were all awestruck. To break the ice, Holbrooke asked him, “Mr. President, what do you remember from your 27 years on Robben Island?” Mandela beamed from ear to ear and said, “You know, looking back I sometimes miss it! In those days, I got a lot of reading done!” And as the room dissolved into adoring laughter, we all understood that we had met the quintessential “happy warrior,” whose indomitability of spirit allowed him not just to survive, but to achieve transformational change, against all odds. As a leader, Mandela personified Lincoln’s call for “malice toward none, … charity for all, with firmness in the right.” But here we should remember him as a principled lawyer, who believed that calls for security require equal insistence on equal justice, even under the most extreme circumstances. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Harold Hongju Koh

Sterling Professor of International Law, Yale Law School; Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State (2009-13), Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (1998-2001)