Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called on the United Nations to ramp up conflict prevention efforts, saying the world must get better at identifying the warning signs before violence occurs.

Ardern’s remarks, her first on the floor of the UN General Assembly, came during the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit, marking the 100th anniversary of late South African leader’s birth.

Ardern, who once met Mandela, said he was “a global icon in the fight for equality, freedom and human rights”.

“He led the struggle against apartheid and division. But not only that, he personified the values of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Speaking about Mandela’s profound impact on New Zealand, she revealed her policeman father missed her first birthday because he had to work during the anti-apartheid protests that surrounded the 1981 Springboks tour.

Mandela himself described news of the protest action in New Zealand as “being like the sun coming out” during a visit as South African president, Ardern said.

“I remember that 1995 visit; his dignity; and his inspiration. Mandela was a living embodiment of the United Nations’ values. It is these values and Mandela’s moral example that we must look to promote in a world that is more fragmented and fractured than ever before.”

Jacinda Ardern said the UN needed to follow Nelson Mandela’s example of leadership. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Ardern said many Kiwis’ most vivid memory of Mandela was his appearance following South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph against New Zealand, a “seminal moment” in the path to peace.

“That one act of both triumph and reconciliation said so much about who Nelson Mandela was: his capacity to forgive, his commitment to reconciliation, and his ability to lead and inspire against all odds.”

The UN needed to follow Mandela’s example, she said, with both it and the international community waiting to react for too long instead of proactively working on conflict prevention.

“We must get better at identifying high risk situations and warning signs, before the conflict starts. We must not be silent in the face of intolerance, hate and discrimination. We must speak for those who do not have a voice. We must pursue equal rights for all.”

The UN is set to declare 2019 to 2028 as the “Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace”, and will adopt a declaration tying Mandela’s personal qualities to the organisation’s own goals.

Ardern made her remarks as her partner Clarke Gayford looked after their daughter Neve on the assembly floor.

She joined the pair after her speech to listen to other leaders share their thoughts about Mandela and peace efforts.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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