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Debate highlights: how do you speak truth to power?

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From the Syria conflict and Security Council reform to citizen action on climate change: view the highlights from yesterday’s Elders event.


During their latest biannual meeting in the UK, the Elders travelled to Oxford for a town hall-style debate on 21st century peacebuilding co-hosted by the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

Chair of The Elders Kofi Annan was joined onstage by Jimmy Carter, Hina Jilani and Mary Robinson, while Martti Ahtisaari and Ela Bhatt sat among the 800-strong live audience. Several hundred more people watched the live-stream and joined the discussion online using the hashtag #EldersOxf. The discussion was chaired by Farhan Nizami.

The Elders on stage at the debate

In his opening remarks, Kofi Annan explained The Elders’ mandate and three strategic goals before introducing some of the main themes of the evening’s discussion: resolving conflict through openness and dialogue; women’s role in peacebuilding; global governance; and the growing gap between rich and poor.

The Elders responded to questions on diversity and the role of mass media in promoting dialogue and cultural understanding, stressing the universal values shared by all people and religions.

Mary Robinson drew on her experiences as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to make the distinction between ‘culture’ and harmful traditional practices such as child marriage or female genital cutting. Hina Jilani echoed this:

Just a few weeks after fellow Elder Lakhdar Brahimi stepped down as special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan spoke of his disappointment that divisions between regional powers and within the UN Security Council continue to stymie efforts to bring an end to the conflict – “and in the meantime, Syrians are paying with their lives.”

The Elders had discussed the issue of UN Security Council reform during their strategic and planning meetings earlier this week. Jimmy Carter suggested that the UN General Assembly should play a more influential role, giving the example of the vote in November 2012 to grant non-member observer state status to Palestine.

Martti Ahtisaari speaking at the debate

Martti Ahtisaari joined the discussion, arguing that the Permanent Five is no longer a fair reflection of power and global leadership in today’s world. Kofi Annan agreed that the Security Council has to be reformed:

Responding to a question on education and the role of universities, the Elders encouraged students to become active campaigners on the issues they care about.

Kofi Annan emphasised climate change in particular as an issue that young people need to mobilise around: “We can’t keep consuming as if there’s no tomorrow. As individuals, you have power, you have your vote – so use your influence and become engaged. You can help push climate change higher up the political agenda.”

Speaking truth to power

The final question of the evening asked how the Elders ‘speak truth to power’. Jimmy Carter described how their status as former leaders allows the Elders to “go where we please, meet with whom we choose, and say what we believe. We don’t hesitate about speaking truth to the powerful, since we are no longer powerful!”

Mary Robinson spoke about her role as UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, where leaders can be too “exalted” and distanced from the people they are serving. Kofi Annan suggested that the Elders could play a role in encouraging more frank discussions between leaders and their citizens.

Not everyone had the opportunity to speak during the event, so as they were waiting to leave, the Elders invited some of the students onto their bus to continue the discussion.

Kofi Annan on the bus speaking to young people

Watch the whole debate:

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