UNITED NATIONS: UN leaders honoured Nelson Mandela as an inspiration for the world body, an example for democracy and a reminder that “differences are to be celebrated” as a statue of the late South African leader was unveiled at the organisation’s headquarters on Monday.

“Nelson Mandela embodied the highest values of the United Nations — peace, forgiveness, compassion and human dignity,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.

This year marks the centenary of Mandela’s birth, and the UN is declaring 2019-2028 as the “Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace.” A peace summit was scheduled in honour of the prisoner-turned-president later Monday as the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting of world leaders began.

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 in 1990, 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.

“Few people in the history of our world have left such an incredible mark on humanity,” UN General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces said yesterday.

Dignitaries and members of Mandela’s family, including his widow, Graca Michel, gathered as a cloth was pulled off a life-size sculpture of a smiling Mandela, his hands outstretched. Someone in the group tucked a small South African flag in the statue’s lapel.

Espinosa Garces said she hoped the figure’s presence at the UN would serve as “a reminder that our differences are to be celebrated” and that the world body’s work “should always be guided by the inspiration and the promise that Mandela has left us.”

In a speech at the UN in 1994, he said its challenge was “to answer the question — given the interdependence of the nations of the world — what is it that we can and must do to ensure that democracy, peace and prosperity prevail everywhere!”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday that Mandela believed the UN “was the most valuable instrument to advance peace in the world and to develop equality and to advance the prospects of humanity generally.”