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The Elders 'freelance diplomacy' comes to Ireland

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"Our independence is so much of what we are." Mary Robinson During The Elders' visit to Ireland, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson talk to Mary Fitzgerald of The Irish Times about Nelson Mandela's mandate for the group, their unique approach to international diplomacy, and their search for new Elders.


It began with a conversation between British tycoon Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel as they flew home after a fundraising concert for a charity run by Nelson Mandela.

Branson had been mulling bringing together a group of world-renowned figures to help tackle issues related to conflict, human rights and development in ways traditional diplomacy could not.

Gabriel had been thinking along similar lines.

By 2007 their idea had come to fruition. That year Nelson Mandela marked his 89th birthday by launching the Elders. The name of the group, Mandela explained, was inspired by the way village elders in Africa have traditionally addressed problems within their communities.

Six years on the 10-strong Elders include Ireland’s former president Mary Robinson, former US president Jimmy Carter, retired UN secretary general Kofi Annan and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Mandela remains as an honorary member. Several Elders, including Robinson, Carter, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari and former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, are in Dublin today for meetings with President Michael D Higgins, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore, European diplomats and NGOs.

The work of the Elders has been described as something close to freelance diplomacy but its members say it is much more.

Mary Robinson and Jimmy Carter in Dublin, May 2013

Free from constraints

The fact the group is free from political, geographical and economic (it is funded by a range of private donors) constraints allows it more agility when dealing with seemingly intractable problems.

“[Our independence] is so much of what we are,” says Robinson. “Mandela said of us: ‘This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes, together they will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair’. That is what we try to implement, and I think how we are perceived is part of our added value.”

That underlying philosophy has informed the Elders’ work in the Middle East, where they have focused particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more recently, the pangs of post-Mubarak Egypt; Sudan, where they have worked on the conflict in Darfur and South Sudan; and North Korea.

“Part of the reason why we can make an impact is that we will speak to all parties,” says Robinson. “So we speak to Hamas which many won’t do, and in North Korea we sought – and did – open up space to address both the issue of hunger and food insecurity but also the need for talks on the nuclear issue.”

Carter stresses that the Elders seek to find a gap in the existing architecture of international diplomacy which their unique approach can fill.

“We are quite cautious about...making sure that we fit in and don’t duplicate or challenge official efforts that are being made in the same arena.”

Diverse group

How does such a diverse group of prominent individuals, each with a very different personal and political history, work together?

Carter acknowledges it took time to finesse.

“I would say it took three or four years before we became fully acquainted with each other and learned the individual efforts we are undertaking on our own, and then we tried to ascertain during that time how to help each other,” he says.

“Now we have developed a very compatible relationship – we understand each other’s idiosyncrasies and common values.”

Harmonious relationship

He notes the Elders have never made a final decision that was not unanimous. “If one member disagrees strongly, the others try to accommodate that disagreement. So far it has been a very harmonious relationship,” he adds.

Robinson agrees: “It’s quite an extraordinary group...there is a great sense of a bond of friendship and fellowship as we work. We work on terribly difficult issues but it helps that we can also have some humour, some warmth and great compassion for the issues we address.”

When individual members of the Elders take up separate roles, such as veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi’s current position as UN and Arab League envoy to Syria and Robinson’s new post as UN special envoy to Africa’s troubled Great Lakes region, they consult with the group and seek advice from other members.

“It is a great help to be able to bring them up to date and see if they can help in any way,” says Robinson. “They are very supportive.”

The Elders hope to add two or more new members soon. “We like to have an equal division between men and women, and as wide a geographical arena as possible, with every region of the world involved as best we can,” says Carter.

Robinson sums up the criteria thus: “A strong moral integrity, a strong sense of the values that the Elders seek to put forward – of peace, human rights and sustainable development – and with the courage to speak very boldly and if necessary to criticise those who are in a position to take more responsibility and are not doing so.”

Wider society

She emphasises the Elders’ belief that they must also engage with wider society. During their Dublin visit they will hold a roundtable discussion with a group of young people from Northern Ireland. “We don’t just talk, as we must, publicly and privately with leaders, we also try to link particularly with young people, women and girls, and groups that need to feel that the Elders care.”

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