On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I want to add our voice to the many tributes to Nelson Mandela, the father of modern South Africa. Our thoughts and condolences are with his loved ones, the people of South Africa and everyone around the world grieving his loss.
Nelson Mandela’s message transcended the boundaries of nations, people, colours and creeds. And his character transcended boundaries too: he was a politician, but appeared to be free of all the pettiness of politics.
He was a warm human being with a mischievous wit, and yet seemed to rise above the normal human frailties of anger and hurt.
He was a man who was well aware of his place in history, but he didn’t want to be placed on a pedestal and was humble at all times.
So, with qualities like this, it is little wonder that millions of people who did not meet him in person nonetheless feel they have lost a hero and a friend.
I never had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela myself, but like so many people I almost feel as if I had. He clearly made a huge impact on all of those he did meet. I remember Paddy Ashdown once telling me, with a sigh, that his wife Jane would regularly say that Mandela was the funniest and most charming man she had ever met.
As a student, I was one of the thousands of people who flooded into Wembley Stadium for the Free Nelson Mandela concert to mark his 70th birthday.
Stood there, I remember thinking how on earth could this one man live up to everyone’s expectations, if and when he was finally released?
But, as a free man, Nelson Mandela not only met those expectations, he surpassed them.
The challenge for South Africa seemed almost impossible at the time: how could people, who had spent so long divided in conflict, and either perpetrated or suffered so much abuse, find it within themselves to forgive, to move on and build something together.
Well, Mandela could, and did, and the truly remarkable example of forgiveness he set made it possible for his country to be reborn as the rainbow nation.
Given the enormity of his achievements, we are all struggling to work out the best way to honour his legacy.
I like to think that one of the things he would like us to do in this House today is to pay tribute to and support the individuals and organisations around the world that fight for human rights and do not have a global name.
Right now, all over the world, there are millions of men, women and children still struggling to overcome poverty, violence, and discrimination.
They do not have the fame or the standing of Nelson Mandela, but I’m sure that he would tell us that what they achieve and endure in their pursuit of a more open, equal and just society shapes all our lives.
Campaigners like Mary Akrami, who works to protect and empower the women of Afghanistan; Sima Samar, the Head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission; or organisations like the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras which works in the shadow of threats and intimidation.
They are just three examples of the individuals and organisations who deserve our loyalty and support just as much as the British campaigners in the Anti-Apartheid movement in London showed unfailing loyalty and support towards Nelson Mandela in his bleakest days, and here I also want to pay tribute to the Rt. Hon Member for Neath and his fellow campaigners for what they did at the time.
All of this will make the way we mark tomorrow’s international Human Rights Day all the more significant.
And Britain can pay no greater tribute to Nelson Mandela than by standing up, around the world, for the values of human rights and equality he fought for.
When Nelson Mandela took his first steps to freedom, he made no call for vengeance, only forgiveness.
He understood that dismantling apartheid’s legacy was about more than just removing the most explicit signs of discrimination and segregation. And he recognised too that, to build a brighter future, South Africa must confront the darkness of its past.
In doing so, Nelson Mandela laid down a blueprint that has made it possible for other divided communities, such as in Northern Ireland, to reject violence, overcome their differences and make a fresh beginning.
And that is why I hope that in communities where people are still struggling to replace violence and conflict with peace and stability, the principles of forgiveness and reconciliation, which Mandela embodied, are followed by others too.
Recently, for example, we have debated in this House the alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
Surely, there can be no better way for that country to heal its wounds and bring peace and unity to all its people than to follow Mandela’s example and emulate South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process?
This, as I see it, is Nelson Mandela’s lasting legacy to all of us: to champion the defenders of human rights today and to know that wherever there is conflict and injustice, with hope and courage, peace is always possible.
As the Prime Minister reminded us earlier, at his 1964 trial, Mandela told the world that equality in South Africa was an ideal for which he was prepared to die.
No one who has listened to those words can fail to be moved to hear a man, so explicitly and so courageously, put his life on the line for freedom.
As others have remarked, Mandela famously liked to repeat the great saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
So, on this year’s Human Rights Day and beyond, let us honour his memory by ensuring that the hope he gave lives on for all those whose liberties and rights are still denied.