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The frontlines of leadership, from two ex-Presidents (part two)

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"We get energised by the idealism of many young people, their wish for better leadership in our world." Mary Robinson From early influences to religion and the meaning of life, Martti Ahtisaari and Mary Robinson speak to Mayumi Yoshinari from Chuo-Koron in the second half of a two-part interview.



This is the second part of my interview with two former presidents: Mary Robinson of Ireland and Martti Ahtisaari of Finland. Robinson, the first female UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has devoted herself to protecting fundamental human rights. Ahtisaari, who has greatly contributed to the United Nations in his successive roles as international envoy, has made enormous efforts to resolve conflicts all over the world.

In the first part of the interview, we discussed their thoughts on poverty, women and religion; double standards in international law; Japanese territorial issues; and the difference between individual and government morality.

In this interview, I ask them about the meaning of life and their views on religion, seeking their advice from the perspective of people who have played an active role on the global stage.

What I learned from this interview was that if we live life with an open mind and tackle issues with the courage of our convictions, we will receive support from others and be able to make a difference to society.

Their view of the meaning of life? It’s the sense of connection we feel with one another.

This interview took place in Dublin, Ireland in May 2013.

Mary Robinson and Martti Ahtisaari

Photo: Paul Sharp

An early interest in human rights

President Robinson, I remember your approval rating was a whopping 93 per cent, and people loved you because of your authenticity, courage, compassion and principle. Where do those traits come from?

Mary RobinsonMary Robinson: Well, I sometimes say that my early interest in human rights was because I was the only girl with four brothers – two older than me and two younger than me [laughter] – so I had to be a little bit assertive. But no, I’ve never minded.

I think I learned, early in my life in Ireland as a senator, that you can be criticised. But if you believe in what you’re doing, you can survive. And in my case, it was introducing family planning legislation – I was 25, 26 at the time – and I got terrible criticism in the newspapers; I was denounced by bishops. The proposal was described by the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin that to legalise family planning would be and would remain a curse upon the country. And there was a big headline in the newspaper: “Curse upon the country” – oof, that was heavy.

But, you know, I was very careful as President to stay within the constitutional boundaries, but to do as much as possible. And one of the things I had to think most about was going to Republican, Catholic West Belfast, which was so isolated at that time in 1992. It was isolated from the rest of the island because of the violence, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) being treated, in fact, as basically an organisation which was illegal, and nobody could talk to them. And the United Kingdom obviously didn’t want me to go to Republican West Belfast and were urging the Irish government to stop me. The government did not consider stopping me – but they weren’t too happy.

I went to meet the communities, and I shook the hand of Gerry Adams at the time – and that was the point of criticism. But it did make a difference; it tipped that community back into feeling that they were part of the wider Irish community, if you like; and it was part of an early stage of the peace process.

Chuo-Koron: President Ahtisaari, you went to teacher training college, then started out as a primary school teacher. How and when did you find out you were extremely interested in – and extremely good at – international diplomacy?

Martti AhtisaariMartti Ahtisaari: After one year as a teacher in the city where we lived, I got an opportunity to go as a… perhaps it’s best to say ‘Peace Corps’, under a Swedish programme by a Swedish NGO to Pakistan, to a technical institute there. I decided that I now had to take this opportunity, even if I had been offered a permanent post as a teacher, and all my friends said, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you have a secure life?” And I just didn’t feel that it would be right.

And I learned so much during those three years. First of all, I learned to speak Swedish better than I would have done had I stayed home, because my colleagues were Swedish and they refused to speak with me in English. I learned so much from it that when I came home, I rang the Finnish students’ aid programme, and in ’65, I was recruited to deal with the development issues in the foreign office. And that’s where the whole thing started.

Then I was very lucky that I was sent as an ambassador; I was very young then. I was sent as an ambassador to Tanzania, covering Zambia and Somalia from Dar es Salaam and later in Mozambique when they became independent. I had to deal, then, with the liberation movements in Southern Africa – SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organization), Namibia, and ANC (African National Congress) from South Africa. Had I been sent to India, my life might have become totally different [laughter] – and my career.

Then one autumn evening, the Namibian delegation came with another Irish friend, Sean McBride, to see me. Sean McBride had been UN Commissioner for Namibia, and he was growing old, so he said he had to leave, he wanted to leave, and said: “We want you to become a Namibian candidate – and then endorsed as an African candidate – in a general assembly for UN commissioner for Namibia.”

So I told them: “I am a civil servant, so you have to call to my government.” They did that. And of course, I had to get permission from my family. My wife is a museum curator; she is a history teacher, and she said, “Look, New York has marvellous museums, so I’m all in favour if you decide to go.” Our son was six at the time; he said, “I also had time to glance at the map, and I realised that New York is closer to Disney World than Dar es Salaam, [laughs] so I have no objections to going.” So my wife had to take our son, then, to Disney World when I was travelling all around Southern Africa, and trying to advance Namibian independence.

So life is very much luck. You get your first chance, and I think we both realise how important that is. When you get that chance, you have to put in everything you have.

Look at my background; I’m an ‘eternally displaced person’ because I can’t return to where I was born. It’s part of Russia now because the Soviet Union attacked my country and we lost 11 per cent of the territory, and 400,000 Karelians had to leave their homes and settle in Western Finland.

So that sort of influence perhaps brought me to what I do. I understood it much later on that that definitely helped me. I wanted to help others. And you learn, also, that you have to be patient; you have to listen; you have to respect the people you are dealing with; and you have to be honest with them – not impartial as a mediator, but an honest broker, because that is important. Because sometimes you have to be very harsh with the parties and recognise that in some cases, they have very legitimate demands, which I have to help to solve. And if they are not legitimate, I will tell them so. And so far, I have been tolerated! [Laughter]

And you speak five languages fluently?

Martti Ahtisaari: No, actually. I speak Finnish and Swedish, then English, and if I have to, at least I can get my food ordered in German, and I read other languages as well. But I don’t speak. I’m not terribly good. My son is already much better than his father.

Speaking of Tanzania, your friend, President Nyerere of Tanzania, once said: “Any country which refuses to learn from other cultures is a country of idiots and lunatics – but that doesn’t mean that you have to throw away your own culture.” What kind of influence did he have on you?

Martti Ahtisaari: I admired Nyerere because he was a very modest human being. He behaved like a leader should behave, in the sense that he didn’t accumulate wealth for himself and his family. He led the country at a time when it was very important. His economic policies were wrong; I think even he himself, in the end, recognised that pushing Ujamaa [Nyerere’s social and economic development model] wasn’t the way to develop the society.

But I’ll never forget that when I was the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Namibia, I once went to see him – there were very tricky issues and I wanted him to understand why I was pushing them. I went three times in one week to see him. And then Ahmed Salim, who became Prime Minister of Tanzania and Secretary-General of OAU (Organization of African Unity) later on – a dear friend of mine – said to me: “Martti, if it had not been for you,” – because it was after I had been an ambassador there for three years – “had it not been for you, we would have declared you a ‘persona non grata’.” [Laughter]

But it showed that that sort of personal relationship that Nyerere tolerated, also, was very important.

Mary Robinson: I remember him well, too. And actually, he had a very warm relationship with Ireland – very warm. And he had an Irish secretary, and when he was in the South Centre in Geneva I would visit him when I was High Commissioner.

Religion: holding women back, or a force for change?

Chuo-Koron: We all know that religion can be both helpful and harmful to people. We have seen a number of atrocities committed under the name of God. Do you still see any merit in religion? What kind of influence has religion had on your life?

Mary RobinsonMary Robinson: I think religion is very important in our world, and I’m certainly a very spiritual person. But I just want to link that with what the Elders have been talking about, because it’s very much something that we recognised at an early stage. We said, you know, “We are Elders; we are few… What can we do in this space about women and girls?” And we recognised that actually, women are often held back in the distorted name of religion – it’s not good, religion, if it’s making women second-class.

The churches are too patriarchal anyway – and that’s something that we wanted to address, because if there was a sense that only boys could become priests, bishops and popes, and that girls have to wear certain coverings… all of that affects how girls perceive themselves, and how women are perceived in society.

And that was what led us to a very strong statement. First of all, calling on religious leaders, faith leaders, to champion girls and women – that that’s their responsibility. And secondly, we addressed the area of child marriage, because marriage is not a purely private thing. And the fact that 10 million girls a year are married way before they’re physically or psychologically ready for it – they die giving birth, their children die young, they lose their childhood, they lose their education – all their human rights are negatively affected.

And there were a number of NGOs dealing with this issue in different parts of the world in isolation and, actually, under difficulty. It was a tough issue because it was seen to be cultural. We made the distinction that child marriage – as we saw in Ethiopia and in Bihar state in India where the average age of brides is twelve – this is not culture; this is a harmful traditional practice. As Archbishop Tutu would say, “like Apartheid was a practice that was harmful; like slavery was a practice that was harmful.”

Girls in Ethiopia

The Elders met schoolgirls involved in the Berhane Hewan project, which promotes the benefits of educating girls and delaying marriage, Ethiopia, 2011

But at the same time, the only way you will change it is with that patience Martti talked about, and from within: encouragement of educating girls. And I was very glad – the Elders… we differ. Some are very religious – obviously, Archbishop Tutu as our leader in particular – some are not so. But we do, I think, have that spirituality between us that is very important.

Martti AhtisaariMartti Ahtisaari: Can I say a little bit about religion? I’m thankful for the work I have been able to do. Namibia, already, was an eye-opener for me because I learned to know the Finnish missionaries who had been there for over 100 years. And I saw how they stood on behalf of – on the side of – the population in a very difficult period, because it took a long time before independence came. They were teachers, they were medical doctors… That relationship that was there, I think, re-enforced my own religious outlook because I have had a traditionally good relationship with the churches in Namibia – their role was important to keep up the morale of society during the difficult years. And it opened my own eyes.

The best thing was that I could call the Lutheran bishop in Namibia during the very difficult periods and tell him exactly how I saw the situation. I was always welcome to go and consult him.

Actually, that reminds me… liberation theology is very strong in Latin America, and there’s the story of Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. That very powerful story sheds light on the poor and gave them power. So religion did, of course, help the people.

Martti Ahtisaari: But then, I would say that religion has a negative side, because when I see, for instance, in the Balkans, how churches and religious leaders have been cooperating with the political leaders in a manner which is, I would say, shameful…

Mary Robinson: And in Rwanda.

Martti Ahtisaari: Yes.

Energised by young people’s idealism

Chuo-Koron: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring young people?

Martti AhtisaariMartti Ahtisaari: I still have a principle in my life that every morning, when I wake up, I always think: “This is the first day of my life,” and “What’s interesting that I can do today?” It’s not my last – it’s my first, every morning. And that made the days... And I would leave that to the young people as well. You have to develop an intellectual curiosity because that drives you. You want to understand the world, because whatever you do, I think it is important that you use your capacity to understand and think. And you also establish values which are around you; it’s not a difficult process. And you stick to those.

Mary RobinsonMary Robinson: I very much agree, and I think young people don’t start cynical; they become cynical if there is so much negativity and double-standards, and people don’t do what they say should be done – they preach, and then they don’t live by what they say; they don’t ‘walk the talk.’

I think the Elders have been asked from the very beginning by Nelson Mandela to reach out to young people, and every country we’ve gone to, we’ve done it – not just to, as Elders, somehow talk to the young people; we listen. And I think we get energised by the idealism of many young people, their wish for better leadership in our world. There’s almost a link between the generations. It was very good that Martti and Gro Brundtland could meet with young people from Northern Ireland on this visit to Ireland, as we’ve met with young South Africans, young Brazilians, young people in the Korean Peninsula.

Really, everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve tried to do that. I was very struck in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) – 50 per cent of the population is under 18. They must have a life that is not caught up in conflict. Young girls and young boys must feel they have a future. So I’ve begun to talk about a peace dividend – get them to think that things can be different for their country, and they’re the ones who have to insist that there is more leadership that is of service to them – a leadership of service rather than a leadership of greed! [Laughter]

What are your favourite books? What kind of books would you recommend to young people?

Mary Robinson: I like reading biographies of people that are interesting, I must say. And I also read light novels to relax. I feel that, because of being busy, I’m not reading enough sometimes, but I always have books beside my bed. But when I’m on my own in my home, the books that are nearest to me are poetry, in fact. I love to pick up and read. I know a number of the Irish poets – they’re personal friends. Somehow, that’s what lifts me and gives me a certain sense… It’s just the way language matters, and they can say things in a particular way that can touch you as nothing else.

Martti Ahtisaari: I think we have a division in the family. My wife doesn’t always travel like she is doing with me now. She follows cultural events in Finland much more closely; she reads much more; she sees what is happening in my own society. And I have a file waiting for me to see, so that I am not totally out of what happens in my own society.

I have decided now that I want to stay home every Friday, because I realise that the pile of books that I should read is growing. I’m a prolific buyer of books; there are certain bookstores where I always see something interesting. I must have at least fifty such books in my study.

And perhaps my fascination has been the United States, because there are two books that I have recommended to my friends as well – two professors whom I happen to know: Jeffrey Sachs, whose book Price of Civilization describes his own society; and Joseph Stiglitz’s book, Price of Inequality, because I think it’s important that we understand great power and how its nature is changing – or has changed – dramatically in both the political and economic sense.

So, I read less, sort of, detective stories or literature. My wife has to educate me when she reads a book – she makes me sit down and we discuss it. I don’t think that I have much choice, because I want to go listen to music – I’ve been a Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Finnish National Opera for the last twelve years, and I was just re-elected for three more years in that capacity. Opera is close to me and I love music. We have a new music hall only a few hundred metres from where I live; same with the opera. So I love to go, and I have plenty of good musician friends who always call. The recent marvellous event was to listen to the Paulo Cello Competition – I went to listen to the finalists, and… I even picked the winner! [Laughter]

Making a positive change

Chuo-Koron: As members of the Elders, what are you most excited and concerned about these days?

Martti Ahtisaari: [to Mary Robinson] You are an older Elder... [Laughter]

Mary Robinson: ‘Longer-serving.’ [Laughter]

Martti Ahtisaari: Longer-serving, sorry! [Laughter] I have to be careful!

Mary RobinsonMary Robinson: I would say that once we had that first meeting with Nelson Mandela – I was at the planning meeting in 2007, and then we were launched on Madiba’s 89th birthday in July – and from the moment of him sitting at that round table with us in that deep voice, telling us not to come thinking we knew all the solutions; to listen, to care about those who were most marginalised, those in conflict; to address issues that others were not addressing; to be bold; to be independent… Ever since then, it’s been such a kind of special privilege to belong to this wonderful group, and to learn from my fellow Elders.

Nelson Mandela and Elders at the organisation's lauch

Nelson Mandela speaking at the launch of The Elders, 2007

Martti AhtisaariMartti Ahtisaari: I’m quite happy that we can make a positive change in the world to these different issues which we are touching. The good thing is that we have, normally, access to wherever we want to go. We are listened to, and we want to go and listen, as Mary was saying. So I don’t think that the Elders can, for instance, start negotiating a peace deal somewhere, because that would require our permanent presence in the process. Our organisations may very well be able to do that – sort of like my own – and perhaps supported by the Elders in many cases.

But we can push things in the right direction – untie the knots, perhaps, when things are stuck in certain processes. And we have to look very carefully where we can have maximum impact with our actions, because we are all not only Elders, we are Elders also in our life outside of ‘The Elders’ – and, I would say, are fully active there, as well. So it has to be a healthy balance that we have to reach.

Did you have a big influence from your parents?

Mary Robinson: Oh, yes. And grandparents, and even… I had some very strong Reverend Mothers in my background; a great aunt and a sister of my father’s, who was a Sacred Heart nun in India for about thirty years. When I was a teenager, she used to write about what she was doing, and I think that gave me that interest – there is a world where people don’t have what we take a little bit for granted, even though the Ireland I grew up in was much poorer.

Last question: what do you think is the meaning of life?

Mary Robinson: I think it’s something like the word ubuntu – “I am, because you are”. It’s that connection between us that is part of our human potential. But we also have to think of the other species that we share this world with, and indeed the future of the world. But it is that sense of the connection between us. There is an Irish way of saying it: “It is in each other’s shadow that we flourish.”

Martti Ahtisaari: It’s easy to share what Mary just said. I think it is important to see that not only you, but everybody in this society gets a chance for a better life, and a fulfilling life in a sense. And I luckily live in a society, like the Nordic countries, where opportunity is given to anyone whatever your background is – if you are poor, it doesn’t matter; you get a first-class education.

Then we have to remind the youngsters, also, that it is their responsibility to utilise that opportunity. You can’t turn to the state to do this and that, because all of us have that responsibility. And I think we have to keep on reminding ourselves that we have to use common resources also in some egalitarian manner in which we give everyone a chance for good life. The aspects that Mary was describing are important, because we have to see that not only “I am happy, and I get this,” but everybody has that chance.

Excellent. Thank you very much. I really appreciate this opportunity.

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