Do Mandela's Elders Violate Human Rights?
By Staff News & Analysis - February 14, 2011

The last word for Saturday in the BBC's live coverage of Egypt should go to the veteran of another liberation struggle: Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He's now a member of the Elders, a group of global leaders who offer their advice on the challenges of our time. The Elders tweet: "'Brothers and sisters of Egypt, you have given the world the most precious gift: the belief that ultimately right will prevail.' Desmond Tutu" – BBC

Dominant Social Theme: The Elders are emerging as a force for social change and global good.

Free-Market Analysis: The Elders pack a mainstream-media punch. They've already received a good deal of mainstream media coverage. We queried "Elders, global leaders" and received nearly 500,000 cites on Google. website explains that the group is composed of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela (left). These eminent individuals "offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity."

The Elders currently consist of a number of prominent individuals from around the world. These include: Martti Ahtisaari; Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Brundtland, Fernando H Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu. Nelson Mandela is an honorary Elder. These are impressive global figures, and it is certainly not our place to question their good will. But in this article, we will examine the philosophical underpinnings of The Elders and raise some objections to the implicit and explicit approach to human rights taken by the group. First some background.

According to the website, the idea of The Elders came out of a discussion between Virgin-Airline owner Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel. These successful men saw the world evolving the same way, interdependently, and as a result, according to the website, they began to wonder if a "small, dedicated group of independent elders (could) help to resolve global problems and ease human suffering." In traditional societies, elders are often looked on as wise arbitrators who help provide solutions to community problems.

Branson and Gabriel approached the famous peace activist and liberator of South Africa Nelson Mandela and he in turn brought on board Graça Machel and Nobel Peace Prize winner and apartheid activist Desmond Tutu. Together, these three provided the core support for the concept, which eventually resolved itself around certain very specific criteria from a management standpoint: The Elders were to be independent, internationally trusted and should have built a reputation for "inclusive, progressive leadership."

Mandela himself presented the concept – and the newly appointed group – on July 2007, as part of his 89th birthday celebration in Johannesburg. "The Elders can speak freely and boldly," he said, "working both publicly and behind the scenes. They will reach out to those who most need their help. They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair."

The Elders, according to the website, are to be committed to listening to the views of all groups and individuals when undertaking an initiative – and especially women and young people. And in pursuit of a successful outcome, The Elders are to work "publicly and behind the scenes and at all levels – local, national and international – lending support and advice when invited, and sometimes when it is not. A quick perusal of the activities reveals a busy schedule indeed. In the first quarter of February alone, the group has released four separate statements on ongoing missions, as follows:

8 Feb 2011: Sudan: The Elders commend orderly and peaceful referendum on South's self-determination … The Elders have commended Sudanese leaders for the smooth and orderly conduct of the South's referendum on self-determination in January, the official results of which were announced yesterday. The Elders praised the authorities, in particular the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, for overcoming significant logistical challenges to ensure a successful voting process.

8 Feb 2011: Time for a renewed spirit of leadership in Cyprus … Elders' chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his fellow Elder Dr Gro Brundtland today called for a renewed spirit of leadership in Cyprus, emphasising the need for courage and vision in order to achieve a lasting resolution of the conflict for the benefit of future generations.

4 Feb 2011: The Elders visit Cyprus and London to launch new documentary film on missing persons … Elders' chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his fellow Elder Dr Gro Brundtland will travel to Cyprus on 8-9 February to support the release of a documentary film called "Cyprus: Digging the Past in Search of the Future."

4 Feb 2011: We stand with those crying out for freedom … We are deeply concerned by the dramatic events unfolding across North Africa and many parts of the Middle East. As Elders, we stand with all those crying out for freedom and basic rights. The universal yearning of people to be free, to have their voices heard and to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and communities cannot be extinguished.

Much of The Elders' work involves traveling, consulting with individuals and groups involved in a specific problem or crisis and then making public statements that can highlight the issues in question in order to facilitate potential solutions or at least additional resources. The website describes, for instance, actions that have been taken by The Elders regarding Sudan:

In the Elders' first mission after the founding of the organisation, Archbishop Tutu, Lakhdar Brahimi, Jimmy Carter and Graça Machel visited Sudan in October 2007 to draw the world's attention to the region's humanitarian tragedy. The Elders met political leaders from North and South Sudan, political party representatives, UN agencies, African Union officials and diplomats. In Darfur, the Elders met tribal leaders, women's groups, civil society leaders and internally displaced people. The Elders called for an end to the atrocities and the displacement of millions of people and greater protection for the victims of ongoing violence.

Despite all the good The Elders seem to be doing, we have some difficulties with the venture. The Elders' presence at various world "hotspots" probably does bring attention to problems and even help focus resources on them. Yet it is being played out at a very high level. Tribal Elders, in our view, traditionally counsel extended families at a micro level. Such Elders would be aware of the issues and personalities in play and thus their advice is provided with intimate knowledge. The Elders organized by Nelson Mandela cannot offer this sort of intimacy, it seems to us. Instead, they must counsel the elites of the region or state. This is surely a more complicated endeavor and likely less feasible.

The UN seems to be a backer of the project as well. Kathy Bushkin Calvin of The United Nations Foundation is listed as a "supporter." Her bio reads in part: "Kathy Bushkin Calvin is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the United Nations Foundation, a public charity established in 1998 by Ted Turner to address global problems through public-private partnerships. Before joining the UN Foundation, Kathy guided AOL Time Warner's philanthropic activities as President of the company's foundation and was America Online's Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer. In 1999, she was recognized as the top communications professional in the technology industry and as one of the leading women in communications and public relations. In this same year, Kathy also co-founded the Stargazer Foundation, an online tool for nonprofits."

Ms. Calvin, and many other listed, form an activist backing that draws on predictable power-elite resources. Yet the impossibly wealth banking families of the Anglo-American elite – attempting to build one-world government – have created and implemented many of the problems (via their scarcity promotions), in our view, that the Elders are tasked to remedy. It begins to look in a sense like damage control.

There is a bigger concern. The Elders website has a focus on "human rights" as well. It informs us of the following: "In 1948 the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a global statement based on values of freedom, equality, dignity, tolerance, respect and shared responsibility. The principles contained in the Universal Declaration are as important today as they were in 1948 … The Elders continue to emphasize the importance of these fundamental rights in every aspect of their work."

Here is how the US Declaration of Independence phrases it: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness … That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…"

Now let us compare this language to the aborted European Union Constitution, which took much of its inspiration from various UN and other humanist doctrines. Here is how the EU Constitution begins: "The Constitution establishes the European Union, on which the Member States confer competences to attain objectives they have in common. The Union shall coordinate the policies by which the Member States aim to achieve these objectives, and shall exercise on a Community basis the competences they confer on it."

The Constitution makes it clear – "states confer competences." Another example: At, we find a listing of numerous human rights issues from the brutalization of women to problems with potable water. As regards the latter, the website informs us that, "To underscore the importance of access to clean water, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution to make access to water a basic human right in July, 2010."

Again, we see the UN General Assembly is bestowing human rights via resolutions. But what is to stop such a body from REMOVING or modifying human rights? Once the assumption is made that human rights are not vested in the individual and natural law, but in political processes, the end result must inevitably be that such rights are political and subject to the priorities of the state.

Editor's Note: We have updated this article to better make a distinction between the UN's endlessly refined statement of "inalienable rights" and its practice and evolution. in practice, the fetish for "human rights" as endlessly defined and redefined by the UN is leading to an establishment of a vast international legal apparatus that creates state enforcement mechanisms for "human rights." Thus organizations like The Elders, while giving lip service to such rights end up reinforcing state power and implicitly endorsing the concept that only the state and "wise" leaders can define and implement these rights. The practice stands natural rights on its head and terminally confuses the conversation.

After Thoughts

This is the bottom line philosophical problem with The Elders in our view. No matter how concerned The Elders are, no matter how many problems they want to solve, their outreach begins with the idea that the political, regulatory and economic apparatuses of the state define what rights a person does and does not have. This is apparently the defining mandate of The Elders and the reason why they are involved in campaigns for human rights; they are lobbying governments to provide the rights that humans are supposedly born with. This great venture of The Elders is unfortunately based on a sociopolitical philosophy that supports George Orwell's famous statement in 1984: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever."

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