This is a transformative moment for Africa – and indeed, for the world.
Decision-makers from across the continent, under the able leadership of Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, are finalising a crucial document outlining a common position for Africa on the development agenda that will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.
To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others – Nelson Mandela
Since the 1990s, Africa has gained considerable strength in international negotiations by sticking together and forging consensus on important issues.
It is a strategy that has empowered us in many ways. And it means that our voices will be heard when the framework that will guide governments, donors and development partners for years to come is negotiated. So we need to be careful what we ask for.
I urge our leaders to draw from the lessons of the past, but also to heed current realities. And to look ahead to what the future is calling forth – because this new development agenda will affect the lives of millions of our people at a very critical time for Africa.
I encourage leaders to take a strong stand for fundamental human rights, and advance the trajectory for basic freedoms.
This means pushing for three priorities that lie at the heart of sustainable development: the empowerment of women and gender equality; the rights and empowerment of adolescents and youth; and the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all people.
These interlinked priorities and their policy implications have been carefully analysed by the High-Level Task Force for the ICPD that I co-chair.
We have found that they represent not only human rights imperatives, but smart, cost-effective investments to foster more equitable, healthy, productive, prosperous and inclusive societies, and a more sustainable world.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights, in particular, are a prerequisite for empowering women and the generations of young people on whom our future depends.
This simply means granting every one the freedom – and the means — to make informed decisions about very basic aspects of one’s life – one’s sexuality, health, and if, when and with whom to have relationships, marry or have children – without any form of discrimination, coercion or violence.
This also implies convenient, affordable access to quality information and services and to comprehensive sexuality education.
We can no longer afford to discriminate against people on the basis of age, sex, ethnicity, migrant status, sexual orientation and gender identity, or any other basis – we need to unleash the full potential of everyone.
As an African who has been around a long time, I understand the resistance to these ideas.
But I can also step back and see that the larger course of human history, especially of the past century or so, is one of expanding human rights and freedoms.
African leaders should be at the helm of this, and not hold back. Not at this critical moment.
The international agenda that we will help forge is not just for us here and now, but for the next generations and for the world.
As I think about these issues, I am reminded of the words of our recently departed leader, who gained so much wisdom over the course of his long walk to freedom.
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,” Nelson Mandela reminded us, “but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Let us live up to his immortal words.
• H. E. Joaquim Chissano is the former President of Mozambique and current co-chair of the High-Level Task Force for the ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development)