Judging from the over 80 sitting and 30 former heads of state or government, a dozen princes and kings, some 30 sitting foreign or other ministers, and innumerable ambassadors and dignitaries who gathered in the intense rain of Johannesburg on Dec. 10 to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, the world has something to learn.
Among those at the celebration — which coincided with the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — were the current and three former presidents of the United States, the current and three former British prime ministers, a swath of Nobel laureates, and a who’s who of global celebrities. Canada was remarkably well represented, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, accompanied by Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Jean Chretien, Adrienne Clarkson, and Michaëlle Jean.
Of course, it’s not every day a global icon passes away — a former rebel and “terrorist,” among the best known former political prisoners of a heinous regime which gave the world apartheid. His was a sharp political mind and wit who disarmed with charm. Mandela scored powerful gains with moral and legal arguments that shaped an entire country, if not the aspirations of a continent. His compelling personal story, oratory, and conduct inspired globally. It certainly resonated with President Barack Obama (another lawyer) who, in his eulogy that day, compared Mandela to Martin Luther King and the struggle for racial justice in the United States.
There are many lessons to be drawn from Mandela’s life.
As I write this, sitting in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, I cannot think of an equivalent iconic figure like Mandela to inspire this extremely poor and troubled country. Indeed, the situations are different in many ways. Yet Yemen is in the midst of a similar important transformation after a half-century of conflict and the 33-year rule of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Given additional impetus from the Arab Spring, Yemen is engaged in a remarkable negotiated political transition, unique in the region. And despite the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize being shared by the women’s rights advocate and self-declared revolutionary Tawakkol Karman, there is no catalyzing figure.
There is also no great global support for Yemen, as there was against apartheid. The transition is driven by popular and diverse demands for change, mainly from exasperated youth who filled the streets and “change squares” across the country. Their demands coincided with other competing movements including armed rebellions in the north and south.
International words of encouragement are probably offered more on the basis of interest in Yemen’s geo-strategic position and the need for stability along the Gulf of Aden (through which 11 per cent of global seaborne petroleum passes) and to find a way of addressing Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most active of the late Osama bin Laden’s franchises. By far the poorest Arab country nestled beside the petro-wealth of neighbouring monarchies, half of Yemen’s 25 million people are “food dependent,” 70 per cent are illiterate, most at risk of serious diseases and running out of water — yet flush with guns.
What is the lesson of Mandela for them?
In Yemen there is palpable meaning (and real risks) in calls to “stand up,” be resolute, and grasp the “general interest” out of the hands of the abusing few. Yemen is demonstrating the kind of multi-faceted popular movements Mandela led in his own country and applauded elsewhere. His example was to enjoin each of us to follow suit in our own context.
In this sense, there are in Yemen very many Mandelas, including many who have given their lives (like the Steven Bikos of South Africa who also played their crucial parts, but never lived to see the end of apartheid). In addition to the hundreds of “martyrs” of the revolution in Yemen, there are courageous young parliamentarians like Dr. Abdul Karim Jedban, who stood up, changed his associations, joined the National Dialogue Conference which is deciding on the country’s future . . . and was assassinated two months ago.
Today, as the conference came to an end and with a new Constitution about to be drafted, Dr. Ahmed Sharafaddien — one of the finest legal scholars of the country and a person of the highest integrity and uncommon decency — was assassinated on his way to the meeting. There have been other attacks and likely more to come. Very many have also been assaulted, threatened, or harassed. All are at risk.
If there will be real and lasting change in Yemen, it will be achieved by the many thousands who stand up, endure the risks, and persist through myriad challenges and insist on doing the right thing. Important among these are lawyers and jurists who will shape the new constitution, laws, and institutions. The price of freedom and democracy will come from the intellect, sweat, and blood of so many whose names we will never know — but from whose conviction, dedication, and efforts we all benefit.
Despite the risks, Yemenis may count their blessings notably in their traditions of dialogue and consensus that support the remarkable experience of their present national conference, their commitment to inclusive “partnership,” and to “break with the past.” Their efforts to build a better society based (at last!) on the rule of law, accountability, deliberative democracy, and a whole new politics of responsible governance is in stark contrast to other countries of the region.
What strikes me about Yemen is not so much the absence of a Mandela figure, but the breadth and depth of belief and commitment on the part of so many to the basic tenets of human decency, to shared aspirations for lives in full dignity and freedom, for better lives for their children, and the eternal flame of human kindness and hope. These are driving change in Yemen.
Ultimately, what binds Yemenis with Mandela — and they are inspired by him — is the shared human condition, the currency of basic values, and simple courage.
The unfolding events in Yemen are testament to the assertion in art. 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that, notwithstanding evident differences of context and accidents of birth, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
We are reminded all human beings possess essentially the same or largely similar needs and interests for full lives in dignity and freedom . . . for mutual recognition and respect and for human decency. We all seek the best for ourselves and for our children, for which institutions of good governance provide the basis for individual and social peace, justice, and prosperity. Thereby may we enjoy the security and confidence to plan and invest in the development of our talents, skills, and interests.
This is what Yemenis, like South Africans, aspire to achieve and are struggling to realize. The few Mandelas of the world provide some light, but the hard work in each society is done by the very many who face the challenges and respond each day.
We may equally ask ourselves what are the lessons in this for Canadians? What drives our own leaders to flock to Mandela’s funeral, while our own country’s institutions of social justice and especially human rights appear systematically diminished (such as elimination of the federal Law Commission of Canada), our record of performance reveals cracks or gaps, and our global reputation is in question?
As far apart as South Africa, Yemen, and Canada may be there is the universal need for each of us to be a little Mandela. We must ask what this means for ourselves in our own contexts: where and when are we called upon to stand up, to act responsibly and decently? For lawyers and jurists (confrères), this has special meaning as members of a particularly relevant helping profession.
For us, Mandela is above all an example of right conduct. For those who are in need, and in our shared interest, we are called upon to practise the basic tenets of universal human rights in our daily lives and work, compelled by our professional obligations to do so. We can only hope we never face the same challenges of apartheid as South Africa or of contemporary Yemen. Only our vigilance and integrity will ensure this will be so.