Michael Moynihan writes:
For a man imprisoned for his political beliefs, he had a weakness for those who did the very same thing to their ideological opponents, but were allowed a pass because they supported, for realpolitik reasons, the struggle against Apartheid. So Mandela was painfully slow in denouncing the squalid dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. He was rather fond of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (it won’t take you long to find photos of the two bear-hugging each other in Havana) and regularly referred to Libyan tyrant Muammar Qaddafi as “Brother Leader of the Revolution of the Libyan Jamahariya.” (…)
[Mandela once said,] “Foreigners should avoid any action that may be regarded rightly or wrongly as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.” The affairs of non-democracies, Mandela argued, were not the business of democracies.
Thankfully, not all governments indulged this brand of human rights isolationism when Mandela was jailed on Robben Island.
The problem with this stance isn’t merely that Mandela was wildly wrong—which he was—about the fairness and independence of the Iranian judiciary or the righteousness of the Cuban and Libyan dictatorships, but his reliance on the old debating trick of shouting “sovereignty” about a crowded political prison. This was, you might remember, the argument of both the apartheid regime and its criminal co-conspirators.