Skip to main content


1 September 1998

Press Release


19980901 Following is the text of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's address today on receiving the honorary doctorate of law from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg:

The honour you have just bestowed on me is one I shall cherish all my life. I cherish it all the more because you have done it to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Like you, Chancellor, I believe the international community has struck a new and important blow for human rights with the adoption of the statute of the future International Criminal Court, and I want to devote my address mainly to that subject.

But I also think this is a highly appropriate place in which to commemorate the Universal Declaration -- not least because it was the alma mater of the late Duma Nokwe, whose name has become almost synonymous with human rights in this country.

Every African, and every internationalist, should know and take pride in the history of "Wits", as your university is affectionately known around the world.

In the darkest days of apartheid, when the nationalist government was brutally and unnaturally separating black from white, and thereby isolating itself and the whole country from normal contact with the civilized world, this place was a brave beacon of universal values.

You never forgot your most distinguished alumnus, Nelson Mandela, during the decades when he languished in jail. And as soon as he was available, without waiting for him to become President, you awarded him an honorary degree in 1991. It is a special honour for me today to follow in his footsteps.

Many other black South Africans who studied here in the apartheid years are now prominent in public life: people like Dr. Abbey Nkomo in politics, Dr. Nthato Motlana in business and, of course, Chief Justice Ismael Mohamed.

It was in 1959 that you unveiled the plaque in the foyer of this hall, with its defiant pledge "to uphold the principle that a university is a place where men and women, without regard to race and colour, are welcome to join in the acquisition and advancement of knowledge". I think those words should be displayed in all universities everywhere.

And in 1980 you invited Nadine Gordimer to speak at your graduation ceremony. That too was an act of courage and defiance, given the bleak political climate of those times.

The fact that Nadine is here again today makes this special occasion even more special for me. She has a very special place in the history of this country, but also of this continent, and of the world.

As many of you must know, Nadine is one of those Nobel laureates who really has used her international prestige in the service of humankind and of human rights. She is a great novelist but also, in her non-fictional writings, a fearless defender of truth and of personal freedom. And she has always reminded her readers that freedom of choice is an economic issue as well as a political one.

It is thus entirely in character that last year Nadine accepted my invitation to become a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme, focusing on the eradication of poverty.

There could be no nobler cause. Let me thank her once again for her efforts, on behalf of the whole United Nations system.

But I want to go back for a moment to her speech in this hall in 1980, a moving and eloquent address which should be read and re-read even today. She too quoted those words from the plaque in the foyer, which by then had already been there for 21 years. And she told you bluntly that despite the efforts of just and enlightened chancellors and principals, students and graduates, the ideal expressed in those words had not yet been fulfilled.

Of course not. How could it be, given the barbaric race laws then in force? As she said, this was a segregated University, with "only a token, if growing, presence of black students."

But, in common with thousands and thousands of other South Africans of all races, people here were struggling against the race laws, against the whole evil system of apartheid.

Thank God, sooner than many people believed possible, your struggle succeeded. The laws that once prevented you from living up to your historic pledge have been dismantled. Today, therefore, you have no excuse if you do not live up to it.

- 3 - Press Release SG/SM/6686 1 September 1998

I know that this is still a controversial issue, and that some very harsh things have been said and written about Wits in recent weeks and months. It would not be seemly for me to intervene in those controversies, except to say I am sure Wits will overcome them, and will play as important and valuable a role in the new South Africa as it did in the old.

What I think I can safely say is that these controversies in no way reflect on the personal merits of your Vice-Chancellor and Chancellor.

Who, after all, could dispute the merits of Professor Bundy, of whom President Mandela said, at his installation as Vice-Chancellor earlier this year, that he has played a key part in the renewal of South African historiography?

And who could dispute the merits of Richard Goldstone? I should like especially to say a word about Richard, not because he has just spoken so flatteringly about me, but because of the great services he has rendered to the world and to the United Nations.

As Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry regarding Public Violence and Intimidation, Justice Goldstone played a vital part in South Africa's historic transition, which belied so many gloomy predictions and provided us all with such an inspiring model of conflict prevention. And of course he continues to play an important stabilizing role as a Justice of your Constitutional Court.

But as the first Prosecutor of the two United Nations criminal Tribunals, for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, he has perhaps done an even greater service to the international community.

The work of those Tribunals, though still incomplete, has been a milestone in the age-long struggle to end the "culture of impunity"; to prove that, when crimes occur of such magnitude that they are rightly dubbed "crimes against humanity"; humanity is not without recourse.

Tomorrow, in Arusha, a historic landmark will be passed when the Rwanda Tribunal announces the first judgement ever given by an international court in a case of genocide.

Moreover, the establishment of those two Tribunals was an essential step on the road to Rome. In Rome, six weeks ago, it was my privilege to hand over to the Italian Government the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

In Rome, for five weeks before that, diplomats and lawyers from 160 States had been working day and night to draft that Statute. South Africa, as one of the "like-minded" countries, played a leading role in that work.

- 4 - Press Release SG/SM/6686 1 September 1998

It was a prodigious achievement.

Divergent and sometimes diametrically opposed national criminal laws and procedures had to be reconciled.

Small States had to be reassured that the Statute would not give more powerful ones a pretext to override their sovereignty.

Others had to be convinced that the pursuit of justice would not interfere with the vital work of making peace.

That last point, I know, was a concern for many of you here in South Africa.

Your recent history has been marked by some appalling crimes, which have been painfully chronicled and exposed in the hearings of your Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You have confronted the legacy of the past by offering amnesty, even to the worst offenders, provided they were willing to make a full confession under the eyes of the whole nation, in the presence of the surviving victims.

The world has followed those dramatic hearings, with wonder and on the whole with admiration. But now some people have tried to use them as an argument against the International Criminal Court.

They have suggested that in the future such an exemplary process of national reconciliation might be torpedoed, since the Statute empowers the Court to intervene in cases where a State is "unwilling or unable" to exercise its national jurisdiction.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that argument is a travesty.

The purpose of that clause in the Statute is to ensure that mass murderers and other arch-criminals cannot shelter behind a State run by themselves or their cronies, or take advantage of a general breakdown of law and order. No one should imagine that it would apply to a case like South Africa's, where the regime and the conflict which caused the crimes have come to an end, and the victims have inherited power.

It is inconceivable that, in such a case, the Court would seek to substitute its judgement for that of a whole nation which is seeking the best way to put a traumatic past behind it and build a better future.

Some people seem to imagine that this Court will be composed of frivolous or malicious people, roaming the world in search of opportunities to undermine a peace process here, or prosecute a peacekeeper there.

- 5 - Press Release SG/SM/6686 1 September 1998

Nothing could be more improbable.

The judges and prosecutors, according to the Statute, will be persons of high moral character, with extensive competence and experience either in criminal law and procedure, or in relevant areas of international law.

They will be chosen by secret ballot in an Assembly of all States that have signed and ratified the Statute, and at least 60 States must have done so before the Court can come into existence.

So if any States are worried that the judges or prosecutors of this Court may be inclined to malice, or frivolity, or bias, by far their best remedy is to sign and ratify the Statute, and to ensure that as many like-minded States as possible do the same.

South Africa, I am delighted to say, was one of the first States to grasp this vital point. It was one of 39 States that signed the Statute on the very first day.

That fact provides the most convincing answer to those who think the Court would somehow interfere with a South African-style process of Truth and Reconciliation.

I was equally delighted, though not surprised, to find Richard Goldstone in the forefront of the Court's defenders after the Statute was signed. In a characteristically trenchant essay, published in Time magazine, he recalled the vital role of the United States in setting up the Nuremberg tribunal after World War Two, and in supporting the two existing Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He issued a call to the United States to join its closest allies in supporting the new International Court, and so to "resume its position of leadership on behalf of international justice".

As he rightly said, "the United States does have an understandable and legitimate interest in ensuring that such a court would not unfairly subject American citizens to politicized complaints". But he was equally right when he went on to say that "the careful procedures and demanding qualifications for the selection of the prosecutor and judges ... will serve as an effective check against irresponsible behaviour".

Richard, I cannot do better than echo those timely words, and thank you for them.

Your voice is one that commands great respect in the United States, as it does around the world. And your example, in your work for the Yugoslavia and Rwanda Tribunals, is an eloquent demonstration of how responsible the Prosecutor of an international court can and must be.

- 6 - Press Release SG/SM/6686 1 September 1998

To receive a doctorate of law from your hands is an honour indeed.

I too hope that the United States, and many other States, will soon follow South Africa's example. I hope, moreover, that those who have already signed will soon ratify, so that the Court can assume its functions very early in the new century.

I remain convinced that an effective Court, by deterring potential criminals, will give future generations their best hope of a world free from the scourges of aggression and genocide, which have made this century a hell on earth for so many millions of people.

We at the United Nations never forget our responsibility to those future generations, nor the challenges the next generation will have to face. Nowhere are those challenges greater than in Africa, and on no country does the responsibility fall more heavily than on this one.

Whether the next generation lives up to the challenge will depend crucially on South Africa's schools and universities; and perhaps especially on you here, the faculty and students of Wits.

I am sure you will not fail them. And I am greatly honoured, through this doctorate of law, to be associated with you in your task.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.