A happy belated international justice day to everyone, and a happy birthday to Nelson Mandela.
In celebration of International Justice Day and in recognition of the fact that today is my first day at the IPSI Hague Symposium as a summer staff member, I am going to try to post an update every week for the next month on a ‘relevant’ international justice and/or peace topic. I hope you enjoy!
While Madiba’s birthday initially made me feel like posting on South Africa, I know that there is going to be an amazing presentation on the reconciliation efforts there, post-apartheid. So I will get to that in a couple weeks.
Instead, I am going to focus on something else – Leadership. Nelson Mandela is widely regarded as a hero, a model of what a leader should be. He has ascended to the ranks of people like Gandhi, in terms of his influence and inspiration. And deservedly so.
But, as you reflect on a great person like that, then, inevitably, you also look inward, and wonder – where are the other great people?
It’s a tougher question than it seems – most of our ‘great leaders’ only exist as stories, as myth. For our current world leaders, there is a real sense that their ‘greatness’ is heavily manufactured, focus-grouped, and superficial. Sometimes it seems as though the chief concern of leaders is staying in power. And, by default, this often means that the decisions that get made are the least offensive possible.
It deserves some scrutiny as to what made Madiba a great leader. In part, he was a product of circumstances – South Africa was widely vilified in the international community because of the weight of apartheid. Symbolically, he represented the repressed dreams of a nation of peoples that had been forcefully suppressed. The timing was right, the setting was right. But what seems to have set him apart was his ability to shoulder this massive burden (can you imagine what weight the expectation of millions of people must feel like), to maintain his personal integrity, and to remain committed to his vision.
That is exceptional, and I mean that in the truest sense of that word. Being a leader carries a large amount of responsibility, but, perhaps more importantly, it also comes with a disproportionate amount of power (with apologies to Spiderman). It’s exceptional, because history is full of people who have taken this power and used it to oppress, to commit extreme acts of violence, and for their own, selfish, aims.
International Justice Day is important, because it should remind us about what leaderships, true global leadership, is about. And it should remind us that there is a system of justice for those individuals with great amounts of power, who would misuse that power.