Updated: Oct 5
The Elders is an international non-governmental organization of public figures noted as elder statesmen, peace activists, and human rights advocates, who were brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007. They describe themselves as "independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights". The goal Mandela set for The Elders was to use their "almost 1,000 years of collective experience" to work on solutions for seemingly insurmountable problems such as climate change, HIV/AIDS, and poverty, as well as to "use their political independence to help resolve some of the world's most intractable conflicts".
The Elders is, as of November 2018, chaired by Mary Robinson, and consists of eight Elders and five Elders Emeritus. Kofi Annan served as chair from 2013 until his death in 2018; Desmond Tutu served for six years as chair before stepping down in May 2013, and remains an Elder Emeritus.
The group was initiated by Richard Branson and musician and human rights activist Peter Gabriel, together with anti-apartheid activist and former South African President Nelson Mandela. Mandela announced the formation of the group on his eighty-ninth birthday on 18 July 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
At the launch ceremony, an empty chair was left on stage for Aung San Suu Kyi, the human rights activist who was a political prisoner in Burma/Myanmar at the time. Present at the launch were Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Graça Machel, Nelson Mandela, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Yunus, and Li Zhaoxing. Members who were not present at the launch were Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Martti Ahtisaari joined The Elders in September 2009, Hina Jilani and Ernesto Zedillo in July 2013, and Ricardo Lagos in June 2016. In June 2017, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also joined the group.
The Elders are funded by a group of donors who are named on the advisory council.
The Elders use their independence, collective experience and influence to work for peace, justice and human rights worldwide. The Elders program are encompassed by three overarching themes: Governance and Leadership; Conflict, its Causes and Consequences; and Inequality, Exclusion and Injustice. The Elders focus on six program areas.
Universal Health Care
At the Women Deliver conference in May 2016, The Elders launched a new initiative to campaign for universal health coverage (UHC) as part of their efforts to support and implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The initiative focuses on four areas: 1) Promoting UHC as the best way to achieve the health Sustainable Development Goal. 2) Promoting UHC's health, economic and political benefits; 3) Prioritizing women, children and adolescents in UHC's implementation; 4) Reiterating the role of public financing in sustainably funding UHC.
Refugees and Migration
Ahead of the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016, Elders Kofi Annan, Maarti Ahtisaari and Lakhdar Brahimi visited Germany to launch a report calling for political will to ensure that responsibility is truly shared between countries, and for the vulnerable are protected.
At the Munich Security Conference in February 2015, the Elders launched the "Stronger UN" initiative, which promoted a series of reforms to strengthen the United Nations. This included a review of the composition of the Security Council and of the appointment of the Secretary-General.
Prior to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, The Elders launched the Climate Change initiative together with their grandchildren. The Elders believe that strong leadership is required at all levels in order to deliver a sustainable future. They strongly welcomed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change reached at the COP21 summit in December 2015, and are working to ensure it is now implemented fully and fairly.
The Elders believe that as climate change goes hand in hand with sustainable development, a holistic policy approach that is able to incorporate the voice of civil society and grassroots activities is needed. In this regard, in 2012, The Elders engaged with four young activists in an inter-generational debate on the change needed to secure a sustainable future for the planet, in the run-up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Similarly, in 2016, Elders such as Mary Robinson and Gro Harlem Brundtland participated in the Social Good Summit in New York, in which they took part in dialogues with global climate and young activists.
While The Elders condemned the announcement in June 2017 by President Trump of his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, they note that this has in fact galvanized action by states and cities. They maintain the need to hold governments and businesses to their word so that the deal is implemented in full and in good faith, with adequate means to ratchet up ambition and have reiterated this in subsequent meetings including with Pope Francis and President Macron in late 2017.
Equality for Women and Girls
Commitment to gender equality is a cornerstone of The Elders' engagement in securing dignity and rights for all. From Universal Health Coverage to climate change and mass migration, to peacebuilding and protecting human rights defenders, The Elders believe that women and girls have specific needs that demand appropriately-tailored policy responses.
This includes considering the impact of religion and tradition on women's rights, addressing the harmful practice of child marriage, supporting efforts to promote women as peacemakers, highlighting the specific burdens and responsibilities women face in societies most threatened by climate change, highlighting the scale of violence against women, addressing the effect of impunity in prolonging the occurrence of sexual violence in conflict —including exploitation by UN Peacekeeping missions —and prioritizing the health needs of women in the implementation of Universal Health Coverage.
In July 2009 The Elders called for an end to harmful and discriminatory practices that are justified on the grounds of religion and tradition. Fernando Henrique Cardoso said that "the idea that God is behind discrimination is unacceptable" Jimmy Carter stated that the Elders call upon "all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share". New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof later wrote that "The Elders are right that religious groups should stand up for a simple ethical principle: any person's human rights should be sacred, and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals."
Elders + Youngers
When Nelson Mandela founded The Elders in 2007, he told the group to listen to the marginalized – especially young people. The Elders' work with young people has consisted in meeting many passionate young people on peace, equality and protecting the environment. In 2012, The Elders and four young activists began an inter-generational debate about the change needed to secure a sustainable future, in the run-up to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
Beside collaborating with young climate activists, The Elders have also hold roundtable discussions on African leadership, debated Egypt's revolution with young people in Cairo, discussed the refugee crisis and UN reform with young students at Sciences Po in Paris and, featured guest blogs from youth contributors on their website.
The Elders support greater openness and dialogue between Iran and the international community, and encourage Iran to play a stabilizing role in the wider Middle East.
In their first visit to Iran as a group, The Elders travelled to Tehran in January 2014 to meet privately with the Iranian leadership. Delegation leader Kofi Annan and fellow Elders Martti Ahtisaari, Desmond Tutu and Ernesto Zedillo held a series of productive meetings on the easing of regional tensions; the spread of extremist violence internationally; human rights; and the Syrian crisis. They were encouraged by Iran's new spirit of openness and dialogue with the outside world.
Israel and Palestine
The long-running Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been one of The Elders' top priorities since the group was founded. Given the far-reaching impact of the unresolved conflict and the power imbalance between the parties, The Elders believe the international community has a vital role to play in helping Israelis and Palestinians reach a lasting solution. Particularly, they insist that the peace efforts must be based on the respect for universal human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as that the siege on Gaza must be permanently lifted and that the boundaries between Israel and a viable Palestinian state must be based on the 1967 borders, including a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
A delegation of Elders visited Myanmar for the first time as a group in September 2013. In their meetings with senior officials in the government, political leaders, religious leaders and civil society groups, Martti Ahtisaari, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Jimmy Carter explored how best they could support peace and inclusive development in the country.
The Elders returned to Myanmar in March and December 2014. In the first trip, they travelled to Nay Pyi Taw and Myitkyina, Kachin State, in Myanmar and to Mae Sot and Chiang Mai in Thailand and deepened their relations key interlocutors and focused particularly on representatives of the country's ethnic minorities. In the second one, they visited Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar and Chiang Mai in Thailand, and they reaffirmed their efforts to encourage sustained progress in Myanmar's transition process and called for an immediate end to the conflict.
In August 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi invited Kofi Annan to chair an independent Commission to assess the situation in Rakhine State, including the Rohingya community. The Commission published its final report in August 2017 and put forward recommendations to surmount the political, socio-economic and humanitarian challenges that currently face Rakhine State.
On publishing the report, Kofi Annan said: "Unless concerted action – led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society – is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalization, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State."
The Elders supported Kofi Annan in this role, which he undertook in his own capacity.
At their October 2017 board meeting, The Elders issued a statement expressing their deep dismay and concern at the wave of violence and destruction that swept through Rakhine State from August 2017, displacing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims. They called on Myanmar's government and military leaders to allow displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh and other countries to return, and for their human rights and safety to be protected.
Zimbabwe has been a key focus of concern for The Elders since the group was formed in 2007. Once one of Africa's strongest economies, Zimbabwe has suffered sustained political and economic crises over the last two decades and its leaders are failing in their responsibilities to the country's people.
In November 2008, three members of the Elders – Jimmy Carter, Graça Machel and Kofi Annan – planned to visit Zimbabwe to draw attention to the country's escalating humanitarian and economic crises. A day before their planned travel to Harare, they were informed that they would be refused entry. Jimmy Carter said it was the first time he had been denied permission to enter any country. The three Elders stayed in Johannesburg and were briefed by Zimbabwean political and business leaders, aid workers, donors, UN agencies and civil society representatives, many of whom travelled from Zimbabwe to see them. The Elders also held meetings with the leaders of South Africa and Botswana. At a press conference after their meetings, they said the situation was "worse than they could have imagined" and called for greater regional and global effort to alleviate the suffering of Zimbabweans. Graça Machel said that "the state is no longer able to offer basic services. It can no longer feed, educate or care for its citizens. It is failing its people."
Following the resignation of President Robert Mugabe in November, 2017 The Elders urged all stakeholders in Zimbabwe and the region to work together for a genuine democratic transition. In 2018 and beyond they will continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe, civil society and human rights defenders in holding the country's new leaders to account.