Some of the world’s most respected and venerable leaders have recently stepped forward to help take care of our global village.
On July 18, coinciding with the 89th birthday of former South African President Nelson Mandela, the “Elders” group was unveiled in Johannesburg, South Africa. It consists of global statesmen and stateswomen from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
Constituting collectively hundreds of years of political and diplomatic experience of the highest order, the group seeks nothing less than a transformation of the world by taking on some of its toughest issues, such as AIDS, global warming, war and other concerns. By asserting its moral and political authority, the star-studded group hopes to turn around a world that has become stubbornly brutal for billions.
In addition to the legendary Mandela, the group includes such eminences as former President Jimmy Carter, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Irish President and human-rights activist Mary Robinson, and Nobel-winners Bishop Desmond Tutu, imprisoned Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus.
The group is the brainchild of British billionaire Richard Branson and the rock musician Peter Gabriel. Branson approached Mandela in 2001 about the concept, and along with Gabriel, has raised $18 million to get the project going for at least the next three years.
The individuals in the Elders are not constrained by narrow political ambitions, popularity polls, or nationalist sentiments. Many have spoken out passionately against the Iraq War and the global war on terrorism as violations of international law and human rights standards.
Former President Carter’s most recent book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” breaks a tradition of U.S. leaders’ refusal to speak out about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Aung San Suu Kyi is currently under house arrest in Burma for her efforts to bring democracy to that nation.
Reportedly looking more frail than expected and using a cane at the July 18 gathering, Mandela’s role will likely be circumscribed and somewhat limited in a physical sense. But he clearly is a first among equals. As he approaches the 45th anniversary of his arrest on August 5, which led to 27 years of an unjust imprisonment, the sheer weight of his legacy and lifelong commitment to social justice is inspiring even to this group of luminaries.
More than 20 years ago, then-Rep. Dick Cheney voted against a U.S. House of Representatives resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela from jail. Now, Cheney enjoys the scorn of the global community, while Mandela holds the status of the world’s most respected statesman, a status further cemented by the formation of the Elders.
Change can occur sometimes more rapidly than can ever be imagined.
Clarence Lusane is associate professor in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several works, including “Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice: Foreign Policy, Race and the New American Century” (Praeger, 2006). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.