The Elders (organization)

The Elders
Founded 18 July 2007
12 (including one honorary)[1]
Key people
Nelson Mandela (Founder)
Kofi Annan (Chair)
Gro Harlem Brundtland (Deputy Chair)
Lesley-Anne Knight (CEO)
Mission "help resolve some of the world's most intractable conflicts" and other issues.

The Elders is an international non-governmental organisation 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".[3]


The Elders is chaired by Kofi Annan and consists of eleven Elders and one honorary Elder.[1] Desmond Tutu served for six years as chair before stepping down in May 2013, and remains an Honorary Elder.[4]

The group was initiated by Richard Branson[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] Martti Ahtisaari joined The Elders in September 2009.[8][9] Hina Jilani and Ernesto Zedillo joined the group in July 2013.[10]

The Elders are funded by a group of donors who are named on the advisory council. Over the first three years, US$18 million was raised to fund The Elders' work.


The Elders

  1. Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland, Nobel Peace Prize laureate
  2. Kofi Annan (Chair), former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Nobel Peace Prize laureate
  3. Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association of India
  4. Lakhdar Brahimi, former Foreign Minister of Algeria and United Nations envoy
  5. Gro Harlem Brundtland (Deputy Chair), former Prime Minister of Norway and former Director-General of the World Health Organization
  6. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil
  7. Hina Jilani, international human rights defender from Pakistan
  8. Graça Machel, former Education Minister of Mozambique, President of the Foundation for Community Development, widow of Samora Machel and widow of Nelson Mandela
  9. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
  10. Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico
  11. Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile

Honorary Elders

  1. Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, former Primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and former Chair of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Nobel Peace Prize laureate

Former Elders

Donors and team

The work of The Elders is coordinated and supported by a small team based in London.[2] The team is headed by Lesley-Anne Knight, who was appointed chief executive officer (CEO) in January 2013.[14]

Princess Mabel of Orange-Nassau served as The Elders' first CEO from 2008 to 2012, when she resigned for personal reasons. Katy Cronin, chief operating officer (COO), temporarily assumed control pending the appointment of a new CEO.[15]

The Elders are independently funded by a group of donors, who also make up The Elders' Advisory Council: Richard Branson (who built a special dodecagonal open air meeting room on Necker Island to host the group) and Jean Oelwang (Virgin Unite), Peter Gabriel (The Peter Gabriel Foundation), Kathy Bushkin Calvin (The United Nations Foundation), Jeremy Coller and Lulit Solomon (J Coller Foundation), Niclas Kjellström-Matseke (Swedish Postcode Lottery), Randy Newcomb and Pam Omidyar (Humanity United), Jeffrey Skoll and Sally Osberg (Skoll Foundation), Jovanka Porsche (HP Capital Partners), Julie Quadrio Curzio (Quadrio Curzio Family Trust), Amy Towers (The Nduna Foundation), Shannon Sedgwick Davis (The Bridgeway Foundation), and Marieke van Schaik (Dutch Postcode Lottery). Mabel van Oranje, former CEO of The Elders, sits on the advisory council in her capacity as Advisory Committee Chair of Girls Not Brides.[16]


The Elders carry out initiatives in two broad areas: promoting dialogue and building peace; and supporting efforts to alleviate human suffering, particularly caused by extreme poverty, injustice, or intolerance.[17]

Geographically-focused initiatives

Arab Spring

Following major demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, The Elders stated that they stood in solidarity with "all those crying out for freedom and basic rights".[18] In an interview with CNN, Desmond Tutu called on the international community to bring pressure to bear on Muammar Gaddafi to relinquish power.[19]

Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson travelled to Cairo in October 2012. During their meetings with President Mohamed Morsi, senior officials and diplomats, representatives of civil society organisations and young people, the Elders emphasised the importance of "an inclusive, democratic transition."[20][21]

Brundtland and Carter both visited to Egypt earlier in 2012, where they met civil society organisations and spoke to students at the American University in Cairo.[22] Carter also travelled to Egypt with The Carter Center to witness the country's presidential and parliamentary elections in January[23] and May 2012.[24]

In November 2011, a few weeks after elections to Tunisia's Constituent Assembly, Martti Ahtisaari, Mary Robinson and Lakhdar Brahimi travelled to Tunis to attend the annual gathering of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. In an interview with the BBC following her meeting with Tunisian bloggers, Mary Robinson described the "sense of buoyant democracy" in the country.[25]

Outside of their role as Elders, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi have individually been involved in the international efforts to try to resolve the conflict in Syria. In February 2012, Annan was appointed Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and League of Arab States on the Syrian crisis.[26] He was succeeded in the role by Brahimi, who was appointed Joint Special Representative in August 2012.[27]


The Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is a former honorary Elder. During her detention in Burma/Myanmar, she was unable to play an active role in the group, so The Elders placed an empty chair in her honour at all their meetings.[28] Following her release in 2010, the Elders have continued to call for the release of all political prisoners in Burma/Myanmar.[29] In line with the requirement that members of The Elders should not hold public office, Suu Kyi resigned as an honorary Elder following her election to parliament in April 2012.[30]

A delegation of Elders visited Burma/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.[31][32] The Elders returned to Myanmar in March 2014, travelling 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.[33] The Elders visited Myanmar for the third time with a delegation including Gro Harlem Brundtland, Martti Ahtisaari, Lakhdar Brahimi and Hina Jilani. During their one-week visit to Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar and Chiang Mai in Thailand, the Elders continued their efforts to encourage sustained progress in Myanmar’s transition process and called for an immediate end to the conflict.[34]


In October 2008, the Elders visited Cyprus to support the newly begun peace talks on the island between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders. Desmond Tutu said that "These opportunities don't come around very often".[35] Elders Jimmy Carter, Lakhdar Brahimi and Desmond Tutu met political leaders, civil society representatives and young people from both communities.[36] They visited the island to offer support and had no formal involvement in the peace process.[37]

Elders Gro Harlem Brundtland and Lakhdar Brahimi visited Athens, Ankara and Cyprus in September 2009 to encourage efforts to reunify the island. In Ankara they met Turkish President Abdullah Gül,[38] and PASOK President George Papandreou in Athens.[39] In Nicosia they met Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat and Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias.[40] The Elders also met local media and leading women from politics, business and civil society on the island.[41][42]

In December 2009, Elders Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Lakhdar Brahimi returned to Cyprus. They convened a public meeting on how trust could be engendered between conflicting communities and filmed a documentary. The documentary, "Cyprus: Digging the Past in Search of the Future", follows the three Elders as they accompany four young Cypriots to learn about the search for the remains of thousands of missing people who were killed in the violence of the 1960s and 1970s.[43] It was launched in early 2011 with special screenings in Nicosia and at the Houses of Parliament in London.[44] The Elders worked closely with the Committee on Missing Persons in making the film.[45]


The Elders support greater openness and dialogue between Iran and the international community, and encourage Iran to play a stabilising role in the wider Middle East. In January 2014, Kofi Annan led and Elders delegation of Martti Ahtisaari, Lakhdar Brahimi, Desmond Tutu and Ernesto Zedillo to Iran where they met with the country's leadership and spoke about the easing of regional tensions; the spread of extremist violence internationally; human rights; and the Syrian crisis. The Elders were encouraged by Iran’s new spirit of openness and dialogue with the outside world.[46]

Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The Elders planned to send a three-person team on a mission to the Middle East from 13–21 April 2008, but eventually this could not take place.[47][48][49] Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, and Mary Robinson planned to visit Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the interlocking Middle Eastern conflicts. The Elders planned to prepare a report for the public to help people understand the urgency of peace and what is needed to secure it. They also planned to meet and begin to work with groups that will reinforce the efforts by the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to negotiate a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. The Elders announced that the mission would instead take place in August 2009.[50]

In August 2009 six Elders, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu visited Israel and the West Bank to draw attention to the impact of the long-running conflict on ordinary people, and to support efforts by Israelis and Palestinians to promote peace.[51] They were joined on the trip by Richard Branson and Jeff Skoll.[52] The Elders met Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad,[53] and local peace activists involved in non-violent demonstrations.[54] The report of their visit said they hoped it would "spur leaders and ordinary citizens alike to actions that will further peace, human rights and justice for all in the Middle East".[55]

Four Elders, Mary Robinson, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Jimmy Carter, returned to the Middle East in October 2010 to visit Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank. The aim was to encourage peace efforts[56] with an emphasis on the need to reach "a just and secure peace for all" based on international law.[57] Throughout the trip, The Elders held discussions on the peace process with political leaders, representatives of human rights organisations, student and youth groups, women's groups, business, civil society and opinion leaders.

During the trip, Mary Robinson said that "As Elders, we believe the two-state solution has the potential to deliver peace – but a more energetic and comprehensive approach is needed."[58] The Elders also called for an immediate end to the Blockade of the Gaza Strip, describing it as an "illegal collective punishment" and "an impediment to peace."[59] The Elders released a report outlining their conclusions following the visit, which they hoped would "be a helpful contribution to peace efforts."[60]

In October 2012, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson returned to the region, travelling to Israel, the West Bank and Egypt.[61][62] In their discussions with political leaders, civil society, and humanitarian and human rights experts, the Elders sought to "express concern about the future of the two-state solution and highlight the effect of settlement expansion and other changes in the city of Jerusalem as a major impediment to peace between Israelis and Palestinians."[63]

Outside of their visits to the region, the Elders continue to monitor developments closely and comment on particular issues that arise. On 31 May 2010 The Elders condemned a raid by Israeli forces on a flotilla of ships attempting to break the Israeli blockade Gaza.[64] They have also spoken out against the conviction of Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian leader of non-violent resistance,[65] and in February 2011 stated that the decision of the United States to veto a United Nations resolution condemning continuing Israeli settlement building in the occupied Palestinian Territories was "deeply regrettable".[66] Carter and Robinson in August 2014 at the height of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict called for the recognition of Hamas as a legitimate political actor, and a UN mandated lifting of the Gaza siege.[67]

In May 2015, Jimmy Carter and Gro Harlem Brundtland visited Israel and Palestine and ended their visit to Israel and Palestine with a call for meaningful steps to stop the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and reconcile the different Palestinian factions. The Elders regretted that they were unable to go to Gaza on this visit and witness the situation firsthand. They held talks with President Mahmoud Abbas and senior political figures from both Israel and Palestine, civil society groups and ordinary citizens to hear their perspectives and convey The Elders’ commitment to a fair and enduring resolution to the conflict.[68]

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach criticized the group in a January 2016 posting, noting, "Unfortunately among the elders that Branson selected for his new group are a Who’s who of some of the most tenacious, anti-Israel public figures in the world today. The Elders’ anti-Israel statements and press releases condemning the Jewish state are a sad testament to this fact."[69]

Ivory Coast

Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson visited Ivory Coast on 1–2 May 2011 to "encourage reconciliation and healing" following the post-election violence in the country.[70] During their visit, The Elders also emphasised the importance of improving the country's security situation. They met the President of Ivory Coast Alassane Ouattara, Prime Minister Guillaume Soro and former President Laurent Gbagbo.[71]

Kofi Annan returned to Ivory Coast in January 2012 to support the ongoing reconciliation process. During his visit, he noted the progress that had been made and encouraged all Ivorians to participate in "the task of reconciliation and healing."[72][73]

Korean Peninsula

In April 2011, a delegation of Elders made a six-day visit to the Republic of Korea (South Korea), the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and China.[74] Led by Jimmy Carter and including Martti Ahtisaari, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Mary Robinson, The Elders delegation aimed to help defuse tensions in the Korean Peninsula and alleviate urgent humanitarian issues including reported food shortages in North Korea.[75] The Elders aim was to help restore trust between the DPRK and ROK, making it clear that they were acting independently and did not intend "to replace or intervene in any official process".[76]

In a report released following the Elders' visit, Jimmy Carter stated: "On relations between North and South Korea, there are no quick fixes…and progress will require greater flexibility, sincerity and commitment from all parties".[77] Martti Ahtisaari and Gro Harlem Brundtland later travelled to Brussels to brief senior European Union officials on their findings. The group continues to engage in private advocacy and diplomacy on the key issues.[78]

Sri Lanka

The Elders have closely followed developments in Sri Lanka and spoken out on several occasions since the end of the decades-long conflict in 2009. In November 2009, the Elders wrote to Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa[79] as well as major donors, calling on the government to protect the rights of displaced civilians following years of war. Desmond Tutu said the government had "an obligation to serve all Sri Lanka's citizens – including the Tamil and other minority communities".[80]

Since the period immediately following the cessation of fighting in Sri Lanka, The Elders have persistently emphasised the importance of achieving reconciliation and accountability for violations committed during the conflict. In August 2010, The Elders expressed disappointment at the Sri Lankan government's clampdown on domestic critics and "disdain for human rights". The Elders added that meaningful progress on reconciliation on the island was still "desperately needed".[81]

In February 2012, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu wrote an op-ed in The Guardian, urging the member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council "to support a resolution that seeks accountability for the terrible violations of international law that have taken place, and establishes mechanisms to monitor progress on the steps the government is taking on accountability".[82] The U.S.-backed resolution on ‘Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka’ was adopted by the Council on 22 March 2012.[83] Robinson and Tutu wrote a further op-ed published in The Times, The Times of India and the Tribune de Genève in March 2013, calling on the Council and the Commonwealth to exert pressure on Sri Lanka's government to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).[84]

Sudan and South Sudan

The Elders' first mission to Sudan took place from 30 September to 4 October 2007. Desmond Tutu, Lakhdar Brahimi, Jimmy Carter, and Graça Machel travelled to Sudan to learn more about the humanitarian situation in Darfur and to affirm the group's support for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was negotiated between North and South of the country in 2005 to end its 22-year civil war. The Elders published a report on their findings titled 'Bringing Hope, Forging Peace: The Elders' Mission to Sudan'.[85]

In 2008, the Elders encouraged states to provide urgently needed helicopters for peacekeepers in Darfur.[86] In March 2009 the Elders called for aid agencies to be given access to Sudan following their expulsion by the Sudanese government.[87] Ahead of South Sudan's self-determination referendum in January 2011, The Elders warned of a risk of renewed violence in Sudan and urged 'swift and bold action' by the international community in support of the peace process.[88]

In January 2011, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan led the Carter Center delegation to observe the referendum on self-determination in South Sudan.[89]

In 2012, prompted by the "worsening relations between Sudan and South Sudan, deteriorating economic conditions in both countries, and renewed conflict in the Sudanese states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan", The Elders decided to make a series of visits to Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia.[90] They aimed to highlight the growing humanitarian crisis and encourage further peace talks between the governments of Sudan and South Sudan.

In May 2012, Lakhdar Brahimi and Jimmy Carter met Sudanese President Omar Bashir in Khartoum.[91] In July 2012, Martti Ahtisaari, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu travelled to South Sudan to meet President Salva Kiir and civil society representatives, and to visit Yusuf Batil refugee camp near the border with Sudan.[92] They also travelled to Ethiopia, where they met Hailemariam Desalegn and members of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan (AUHIP), including Thabo Mbeki and Pierre Buyoya. At the conclusion of their visit, Ahtisaari, Tutu and Robinson urged presidents Bashir and Kiir to meet as soon as possible and recommit to peace. Tutu stated: “Peace, peace, peace is what the people of Sudan and South Sudan need most. Recent months have seen increased hardship and suffering in both countries. It is a fragile time and I hope that the leaders will do what their people need, which is to recommit to working together to build two viable states.”[93]


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.[94] A day before their planned travel to Harare, they were informed that they would be refused entry.[95] Jimmy Carter said it was the first time he had been denied permission to enter any country.[96] Zimbabwe's foreign minister said that they had asked the Elders to postpone their trip.[97] Kofi Annan said Zimbabwe officials "felt our presence may interfere with the political negotiations".[98] Zimbabwe's state-controlled newspaper The Herald said that "The visit has been deemed a partisan mission by a group of people with partisan interests."[99]

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.[100] 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.[101] 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."[102]

In February 2009, The Elders welcomed the signing of the Global Political Agreement between the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, which provided for Morgan Tsvangirai to become Prime Minister and Robert Mugabe to remain President. The Elders urged world leaders to support it and to "give this agreement the best chances of success".[103] They also called on donors to provide funds for education, food production and investment in infrastructure to help stabilise the country and aid Zimbabwe's recovery.[104]

Thematic initiatives

Equality for women and girls

Commitment to gender equality is a core part of The Elders' work. 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".[105] 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 emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world's major faiths share".[106] New York Times columnist Nicholas D. 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."[107]

Child marriage

The Elders are committed to ending the practice of child marriage,[108] which hinders the achievement of six of the eight Millennium Development Goals. In June 2011, Tutu, Brundtland and Robinson visited Amhara, Ethiopia, to learn about child marriage in a region where half of all female children are married before the age of 15.[109]

Alongside their fellow Elder Ela Bhatt, Tutu, Brundtland and Robinson travelled to Bihar, India in February 2012. Together, the Elders visited Jagriti, a youth-led project aimed at preventing child marriage, and encouraged the state government's efforts to tackle the issue.[110][111]

In 2011, The Elders initiated Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, which brings together civil society organisations from around the world that work to tackle child marriage.[112] The global partnership aims to support activists working for change at the grassroots and call on governments and global organisations to make ending child marriage an international priority.[113]

Every Human Has Rights

The Every Human Has Rights (EHHR) campaign was launched on the 59th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 10 December 2007, in Cape Town, South Africa. The Elders launched the initiative in partnership with a diverse group of global NGOs, civil society organisations and businesses to highlight UDHR principles, including the right to health, women's rights, and freedom of expression. Launch partners included ActionAid, Amnesty International, the Center for Women's Global Leadership, International PEN, WITNESS, Realizing Rights, Save the Children and UNICEF. The EHHR campaign includes partners from civil society organisations in the developing world through networks like CIVICUS and directly. The campaign aimed to "empower global citizens to protect and realize the first-ever comprehensive agreement on human rights among nations".[114]

Strengthening the United Nations

Linked to the 70th anniversary of the creation of the United Nations, The Elders launched an initiative "A UN Fit for Purpose", proposing a series of reforms to the United Nations Security Council and the appointment of the Secretary-General. The latter sought to address in particular the process by which Ban Ki-moon's successor was to be appointed in 2016.[115]

Other activities

Widespread violence erupted in Kenya in December 2007, following disputes over the results of national elections. In January 2008, the African Union established a Panel of Eminent African Personalities to mediate a solution to the crisis, headed by Kofi Annan and including Graça Machel and former Tanzanian Prime Minister Benjamin Mkapa. Earlier, the Kenyan churches had launched an unsuccessful mediation attempt headed by South African Archbishop and Elders chair, Desmond Tutu.[116] While three Elders were involved in efforts to resolve Kenya's crisis, this was not an initiative of The Elders.[117] The Elders issued a brief statement in January 2008 calling for an end to the violence.[118]

In March 2008, Elders Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Graça Machel and Mary Robinson issued a statement calling for a greater role for women in the resolution of conflict, and called on the global community "to acknowledge the vital role which women leaders around the world play in helping to resolve conflict and foster peaceful and prosperous societies."[119]

The organisation has also issued statements on a range of topics including those relating to Iran,[120] Tibet,[121] Pakistan,[122] Norway[123] and the Millennium Development Goals.[124]

On 29 April 2015 The Elders concluded three-day visit to Moscow. The Elders held talks on geopolitical issues with Russian officials, including President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.[125]


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