The first time I heard about the Elders was in 2007 just before the launch of the network. I was at an international conference in Scotland and the audience was mostly from the NGO world. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are a medium between people and the governments; therefore the idea of Elders, a group of prominent independent leaders from around the world working together for peace and human rights, was welcomed with excitement. The moment I was asked to write about peace-building, I recalled that day and wondered if Elders are still active and how much this endeavor has achieved in the recent years.
The idea of Elders was created by musician- activist Peter Gabriel and entrepreneur-businessman Richard Branson. Communities all around the world ask for guidance from elders to resolve conflicts, so using the wisdom and collective experience of committed and respected individuals to create a more peaceful world may work. The idea was first supported by Nelson Mandela who is the Honorary Elder and Founder of the group. The distinguished group has now thirteen members and chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The current members are Martti Ahdisaari, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Fernando Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Hina Jelani, Graça Marcel, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, and Ernesto Zedillo.
The members of the group have to be independent, not bound by the interests of any nation, government or institution. The Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi left the group after her election to the parliament in April 2012. Other principles of Elders are the commitment to promoting the shared interests of humanity and the universal human rights, listening everyone in any conflict, acting boldly, and stressing every individual can make a difference.
Elders engage in private advocacy through using their reputation and influence to “open doors and access decision-makers”. The group including people who were active in peace-building processes decides collectively on the issues they want to focus. In the past 6 years, the group worked on conflicts in Sudan, Sri Lanka, Middle East, Korea and Cote d’Ivoire. Elders also focus on development issues such as equality for girls and women. By communicating their views regularly and visiting conflict areas, Elders’s aim to attract the attention of the public and the decision-makers.
During the crisis in Syria, Elders defended that “There is no military solution to this conflict,” “The Security Council has a moral responsibility to find common ground, putting the well-being of the Syrian people at the forefront of its decisions, in order to end the violence and achieve a peaceful settlement based on an inclusive political process,”. Former US President and Elders member Jimmy Carter argued that an international action is the only way of ensuring that Syrian chemical weapons will not be used again.**
It seems the Elders have been actively engaging in the political debate on Syria as well as many other conflicts to make a change in the world, but do we listen to them enough? Both citizens and media should give them more space and support them in their conflict management, peace-making and peace-building efforts- not because their word counts more, but just to be able to hear different voices.
by Derya Kaya
*** Learn more on Elders at http://www.theelders.org