UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined a chorus of tributes to the late Nelson Mandela on Monday as he urged world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly to follow the example of the man known as Madiba and champion democracy, human rights and the rule of law around the world.
On the 100th anniversary of his birth, the legacy of Mandela was front and centre throughout the assembly’s opening day, whether at the unveiling of a statue in his grinning likeness or during a peace summit in his name, where a parade of leaders and dignitaries defended the values he came to represent.
Some, like his widow, Graca Machel, urged heads of state and UN officials to take on “ego-driven” decision-makers, political dogma and greed. Others, like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, made decidedly unsubtle references to U.S. President Donald Trump.
“Great statesmen,” Rouhani said, “tend to build bridges instead of walls.”
Trudeau’s brief remarks — the speech clocked in at only three minutes — were unflinchingly diplomatic, even as they hinted at the global perils chipping away at the post-war global world order, of which the UN’s monolithic building at the edge of the East River remains a towering symbol.
“That is not to say that our solidarity is unquestioned and unshaken,” Trudeau said.
While global threats like climate change, armed conflict and other “emerging threats” continue to test the world’s commitment to Mandela’s values, he said, the man himself would only see such challenges as evidence of work still to be done.
“All have tested the strength of our commitment and the bounds of our compassion,” he said. “At times like these, we must remember the example of Nelson Mandela, who believed that we should not despair, for our troubles only bear witness to a job unfinished.”
Imprisoned in South Africa for 27 years, Mandela became the international face of the struggle to end the country’s apartheid system of white minority rule over the majority black population.
Four years after he walked out of jail, he became the country’s first black president in its first multi-racial elections. Over the ensuing decades, he became a Nobel peace laureate and global statesman.
Trudeau also used the occasion of Monday’s summit to reaffirm his federal Liberal government’s dedication to issues like ethnic rights, gender equality and the treatment of Indigenous Peoples.
“As we pay tribute to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, Canada reaffirms its commitment to push forward the work he began. Canada will continue to call out the unfair treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, of women and girls, of Indigenous Peoples,” he said.
“We will continue to speak up for the refugees of Rohingya, for the Yazidis of northern Iraq, for the people of Venezuela. Canada will always stand tall for democracy, the rule of law and human rights at home and abroad.”
Trudeau had a number of bilateral meetings with world leaders on his summit itinerary Monday, including one earlier in the day with the prime minister of Nepal, who thanked Canada for its humanitarian help following that country’s devastating earthquake in 2015.
A major item on Canada’s to-do list at this week’s summit — “the Super Bowl of diplomacy,” as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it — is to resume its stalled campaign for a coveted two-year temporary seat on the UN Security Council.
That endeavour has taken a back seat to the government’s efforts to rescue the North American Free Trade Agreement, a snafu likely not far from Trudeau’s mind this week, either — there’s talk of a meeting on the summit sidelines between Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. trade ambassador Robert Lighthizer.
Canada is in the throes of what Freeland has called a “continuous negotiation” with her American counterparts in an effort to join what is currently a bilateral agreement in principle between the U.S. and Mexico before a looming congressional deadline of Oct. 1.
One event not on Trudeau’s schedule was an official bilateral with Trump, who is scheduled to deliver his speech to the general assembly on Tuesday — but that doesn’t mean the two leaders won’t meet on the fringes of the summit, said national security adviser John Bolton.
“The president’s schedule is very compressed this year in New York, and so there were a lot of requests and a lot of desires by the president to have bilaterals that simply couldn’t be accommodated,” Bolton told a news conference.
“He speaks with Prime Minister Trudeau by phone all the time. And it’s always possible here in New York that they would have time for a pull-aside, as we call it. But there is full and open, complete communication between Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump. That I can assure you.”
Officials with the Prime Minister’s Office said they made no formal request for a meeting, given the frequency of communications with the White House and between the two leaders, including a phone call last week.
Later Monday, Trudeau used his appearance on a panel discussion on the UN’s economic and social council to announce plans to spend $20 million on a Toronto branch of the Global Infrastructure Hub, a public-private mechanism for developing critical infrastructure projects around the world that’s part of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
The hub in particular aims to improve the representation of women and other marginalized groups in sustainable infrastructure, develop infrastructure in emerging markets and ensure facilities are designed to be resilient to the effects of climate change.
— With files from The Associated Press
— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle