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'Elders' Seek Solutions To World's Worst Problems


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Most would describe the Middle East peace process as stuck somewhere between impasse and stalemate and not likely to budge anytime soon. Still, a delegation of respected world leaders is visiting Middle East capitals to see if moral power can effect change. They're members of The Elders, some of the most respected leaders of recent history. They look to restart dialogue on some of the world's most intractable disputes and call attention to violations of human rights.

In a moment, former President Jimmy Carter and former Irish President Mary Robinson on their visits to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Cairo. Given all the intractable problems of the world, where might the moral force of The Elders be most effective? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us in-studio to talk Italy, but first The Elders. Former Irish President Mary Robinson later served as U.N. high commissioner for human rights and joins us now from Cairo. Good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

MARY ROBINSON: Thank you very much, I'm delighted to be here.

CONAN: And President Jimmy Carter's also on the line with us from Cairo, and good to speak with you again, sir.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: It's a pleasure, thank you.

CONAN: President Robinson, let me start with you. Have you been able to identify any motion on peace process?

ROBINSON: Well, we've come very consistently here to Jerusalem, East Jerusalem and then to Ramallah, and now we're here in Cairo. And while we were in East Jerusalem and saw yet more encroachment on Palestinian territory, yet more Palestinians put out of their homes, yet more very provocative settlement building in Palestinian areas and saw the increasing settlements on the West Bank, we came to a very somber conclusion, and that is that there isn't the political will in Israel for the two-state solution.

And we issued a public statement about that. We want to draw attention to it because we know that the two-state solution is the way to peace, and we are very strongly in favor of that, but we cannot pretend, we cannot go along with, you know, a pretense by the facts on the ground, meaning more and more settlements, more and more erosion of the Palestinian area of East Jerusalem continues, and people don't seem to care enough.

It doesn't seem to get the attention that it deserves.

CONAN: A two-state solution, President Carter, of course the state of Israel and a Palestinian state that would exist side-by-side, that's the stated preference of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. You said in Jerusalem you don't believe him.

CARTER: No, I don't because all of the evidence is to the contrary. He's made this statement once. At the same time, he said that Israel has to extend its control all the way to the Jordan River, which is all the way across the West Bank, of course, and that every - all the Arabs had to refer to Israel as a Jewish state, but we know that 20 percent of the present inhabitants of Israel itself as non-Jews.

And of course the rapid encroachment on territory in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem is another proof that he has abandoned the two-state solution. This is the first time since 1967, when the borders were established between Israel and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that the U.N. states' government and the Israeli government are at odds.

Before, all the prime ministers of Israel before Netanyahu have been working with the presidents with varying degrees of enthusiasm to bring about the two-state solution. But there's no doubt now that Israel has abandoned the concept of sharing the West Bank and East Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

CONAN: And is it too far? You mentioned the United States at odds, but you've said that the United States is not doing enough. Is it too far to say that you think President Obama has shirked his responsibilities here?

CARTER: No I don't say that because he spelled it out quite clearly when he first came into office, no more settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and he said it at NATO about six months later that the 1967 borders with small negotiated modifications would be the borderline. And both of those demands by President Obama, which were very wonderful and compatible with all previous history in both countries, has been abandoned or denied or revoked by the Israelis now.

CONAN: President Robinson, the impasse does not come just from one side. It's difficult for the Israelis to know who to negotiate with. There's the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Fatah and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

ROBINSON: That's true, and we very much want more reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. We've talked about that here with President Morsi in Egypt, and we believe actually that the democratic transition here in Egypt may help to bring the two sides together. But that's not a kind of excuse, if you like, for what is happening because what is happening, and we really have seen it, we've been here every eight or nine months for the last few years, and this is something that each of The Elders feels very strongly about, we don't differ on it.

We are very concerned about a peaceful future for Israel and for Palestine, but we cannot but see that steps are being taken which are not compatible with a commitment to a two-state solution and to a peaceful co-existence of the two states as promised or all the U.N. resolutions.

So we do think it's urgent. Actually, the next step we anticipate because we were told about it by President Abbas when we were in Ramallah, is that the Palestinians are going to go to the General Assembly. They'll probably do it in November, (technical difficulty) said. And we support that. The Elders supported it last year. In fact, we were of the view that it would be preferable if the Palestinians already had gone to the General Assembly last - September of last year rather than to the Security Council, which we knew would be blocked, particularly by the United States.

So that would be not - more than symbolic. It would actually be a recognition for the Palestinian people that they are a non-member state of the General Assembly, and it would give them a new sense of recognition of their statehood even as a non-member state at the U.N.

CONAN: President Carter, the - as President Robinson was just saying, go to the General Assembly to seek recognition as a member state of the United Nations, and again there's problems with the Security Council, there's the rules at the U.N., too, but there's also the definition of what comprises a state.

One of the definitions is it holds a monopoly on the use of power. That's not the case with the Palestinians right now.

CARTER: Well, you have to remember that 120 nations in the world that recognized Palestine people, the PLO fully, and have diplomatic relations with them. In fact every time we come here, we meet with a large number of ambassadors from various countries around the world who are delegated to negotiate and to work with the PLO.

And you have to also remember that the Palestinians only have one negotiator. You said they were divided. They are divided, you know, in establishing a complete nation. But the Hamas has always joined with Fatah in saying that President Abbas, Abu Mazen, is the negotiator for them. And they've also said many times to us and publicly that they would accept any deal that's worked out between Abu Mazen and Israel, but they have a proviso that's important, but I think reasonable, that the deal be put to the Palestinian people in a referendum and the people have approved. So there's only one negotiator on behalf of the Palestinians.

CONAN: President Robinson, I wanted to ask you also, the - you've been back every several months. This is an ongoing process. Everybody knows it's not going to happen quickly, it's not going to happen overnight, yet the level of frustration in many corners across the Middle East has got to be palpable, especially after the changes there in Cairo, when many expected a lot of changes in the Middle East.

ROBINSON: Yes, it's a very interesting time to be here. Obviously I was very excited, and The Elders as a whole, we welcomed the Arab Spring, the Arab awakening, the fact that so many people came out into the streets and squares in Tunisia and Egypt, in other countries of this region because they wanted human dignity, jobs, getting rid of authoritarian regimes and getting rid of corruption.

And, you know, yesterday evening, three of us, Prime Minister Gro Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, is also here with us. We three were at a wonderful event with about 200 young people in the audience, and four young people linking with us as Elders, talking about their hopes and aspirations.

And I think this is a tide which is irreversible in this region. There is an openness, a freedom of expression, frustration then that the democratic transition has not been fully implemented straightaway. Of course we know from our experience it can often take longer, and there are going to bumps on the road, to say the least.

But this is going to affect the whole region, including approaches towards the Israeli-Palestinian issue. There's no doubt about that.

CONAN: Meetings at all levels of society, not just with leaders. President Carter, I know you were not able to have a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu on this most recent visit. You did meet with Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, which is a titular title largely, but I know you were able to meet with Mr. Morsi there in Cairo, and I wonder if you spoke with him about what everybody recognizes as your singular diplomatic achievement, the Camp David Accords, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

CARTER: Yes, we met with President Morsi this time, and we also met with religious leaders to really shape the basic philosophy of the moderate Islamists, or the moderate Arabs, Muslims. And this is an approach that's very important. There's going to be a major change, I think, in the attitude between Egypt and the Palestinians.

Morsi has pledged to us that he will abide by the treaty with Israel. He knows that any changes in the treaty, which we helped negotiate back 33 years ago, has not been violated, but any changes will have to be agreed to not only by the Egyptians but also by the Israelis. And he recognizes that.

There are a few minor changes that he wants that I think the Israelis might accept, and that is to increase the presence of Egypt in the Sinai to maintain peace and order. But of course if the Egyptians propose it, and the Israelis don't agree, then the treaty will not be changed.

CONAN: That after the recent incident, what, a couple of months ago now where a group there based in the Sinai attacked an Egyptian border post, killed several Egyptian soldiers then crossed over into Israel and were subsequently killed themselves.

CARTER: That's correct, and the Egyptians and the Israelis recognize that in the past, even under the military dictatorship in Egypt, that the Sinai has been basically a lawless area. And now President Morsi has moved in that direction, and he's trying to bring order and stability and an end to the violence there.

And I think the Israelis might cooperate if he makes a reasonable proposal on just increasing the level of armaments that Egypt is permitted to have in the Sinai. When I negotiated with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, we very seriously restricted Egypt's presence in the Sinai. I proposed this, and Anwar Sadat agreed. But that is a minor thing compared to the overall peace between the two countries.

CONAN: We're talking with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former Irish President May Robinson about their work with The Elders. We've been focusing on the Middle East because they're in Cairo, but their work goes way beyond the Middle East. Given all the intractable problems of the world, where might the moral force of The Elders be effective? We'll be right back after a short break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Nelson Mandela first assembled a group of respected leaders in 2007 under the banner of The Elders. The organization's website describes it as an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights, identifying situations where The Elders' involvement can make a positive impact and where they as elders are uniquely placed to act.

They've focused on child marriage, civil war and, as we've been speaking about, Middle East peace. We're talking with two members of The Elders today, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson. Both are with us from Cairo. Given all the intractable problems of the world, where might the moral force of The Elders be effective? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's begin with Peter(ph), and Peter's on the line with us from Berkeley.

PETER: Hi, thanks for this opportunity, and thank you to The Elders we have for their leadership. It seems to me so much depends on public psychology and values and attitude, as President Carter mentioned. And it seems that this moral force could be brought to inspire and coerce the world's major media to make a commitment to come together on a regular basis and carry a truly global town meeting, such as we're doing here on a kind of partial scale, but we have the NPR audience here worldwide, certainly, but it's nothing to compare with the potential if television and radio networks all around the world would agree to join up on some kind of regular schedule, maybe four hours a quarter, but keep it up, maybe once a month.

Yesterday I participated in a Global Oneness Summit, and they had 20,000 people registered over the Internet during 10 hours, and some of us went all 10 hours, and it was wonderful. And so this seems to be an area where this leadership could be brought to bear.

CONAN: Well, Egypt and Israel are going to be hard enough to bring together, the Palestinians as well. Getting Fox and MSNBC, I'm afraid that's beyond the realm of The Elders, Peter.

PETER: Well, what about just public media in every country?

CONAN: OK, I'm just joking. But did you have a situation where you thought the moral force of The Elders might be effective?

PETER: Well, I guess the point I wanted to make, Neal and guests and audience, is that many of these more localized problems really require the global overview. There's so much interrelation. And Ken Wilber, the great philosopher, was on the call yesterday, and he mentioned that many of the most wicked problems that are facing us can only be handled at the global level.

So I'm just suggesting that yes, we have to have specific focus on specific regional areas, but we also have to involve everyone in the world, literally, to - and all the institutions and all the countries to find the solutions, to make the commitment to a good will, to will for a good outcome.

CONAN: Mary Robinson?

ROBINSON: Could I come in on this? I'm very excited by what Peter has said because it is very much reflected in the meeting we had with young people last night. Many of them were part of Young Arab Voices, and they're connecting young Arabs and Egypt and Libya and Nigeria and Morocco and Tunisia, and one of them said, you know, the only borders now are on maps. There are no borders for us in our communications.

And The Elders were asked by Nelson Mandela to link very much with young people, to recognize that young people don't feel they have enough voice in our world today, and yet the world, you know, especially in the developing world, is very young, including here in Egypt. Fifty percent are under 25, 25 or under.

So I like the idea of increasingly using the technologies we have for these global conversations, and I think, you know, The Elders have been having conversations with youngers on the way to Rio, for the Rio Plus 20 Conference about sustainable development, about the impact of climate, et cetera.

These are issues that are inter-generational. So I like the idea very much. I'm one of the younger Elders, as I keep emphasizing at the conference here.


ROBINSON: And I just like the idea that we now have the technology for a more global conversation.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the call.

PETER: Thank you.

CONAN: And he's right, and of course you're right, President Robinson, there are communications capabilities across much of the world but not all of it, and one thinks of, of course, China, where communication is extremely limited, especially on the Internet, and that in anticipation of this email from Gloria(ph) in Portland, Oregon: Do The Elders have any thoughts about helping Tibet?

President Carter, is this a subject that might be usefully addressed?

CARTER: Well, we've discussed Tibet, but as you know, the Chinese consider Tibet a part of China, just like Georgia's a part of the United States of America. By the way, The Elders though last year, including Mary Robinson and me and Gro Brundtland, did go to North Korea. And at the same time, before we got there, we went to China, and then after we left Pyongyang in North Korea, we went to South Korea trying to bridge a gap there.

So whenever it's possible for us to go in a legitimate way, yes. And I think this is a very important thing to point out in answer to that question.

ROBINSON: And we did have a young Chinese participant in our global dialogue between Elders and youngers, and he relayed our conversation on China's social networks, and the numbers that he reached in China on this discussion about sustainable development last June were stunning. You know, you can see it on The Elders' website, at theelders.org.

And, you know, he's only 23, and what he was doing in China was really remarkable.

CONAN: Of course those issues are very important in China. There is no place, perhaps, where the issues of climate change are more important, either.

ROBINSON: And in Tibet, yes.

CONAN: And Tibet, of course, and President Carter, the Chinese regard Tibet as part of China. The Tibetans don't, though.

CARTER: Well, they - I don't think even the Dalai Lama has ever said that Tibet is independent of China, but we need not get in a debate about that. He's always said it's part of China, but needs to have their own autonomy, their own customs, their own religion and that sort of thing, with which I agree.

By the way, the Carter Center has a major effort in China to supervise local village elections, and we have one of the largest websites on Earth in China basically unrestricted at most times. Right now China's in a process of change, as you know, where the new leaders will be identified a day or two after the election in the United States. So they kind of tightened down at this point.

But I think it's - the discussion that Peter initiated is one with which I thoroughly agree, that we need more interrelations between people outside government circles.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in, this is Dennis(ph), Dennis on the line with us from Nauvoo in Illinois.

DENNIS: Yes, thank you for taking my call. First of all, I'd like to thank President Carter and the president from Ireland, was it, for - as Elders for the work that they're doing. I think it's really tremendous. I've been a fan of President Carter's ever since he ran for president, and I met him in Des Moines, Iowa, all those many years ago.

The thing that impressed me was one thing that President Carter said regarding getting the moderate clerics involved in the Palestinian and Israeli situation, but I think that needs to be more widespread, even into Iran if they can get in there, and talk to the moderate clerics in Iran, I know there are some someplace, and help change the minds of people so they were willing to discuss issues and maybe bring the threat level, the noise level and everything down quite a bit so that peace can be discussed and compromise and cooperation and collaboration amongst the entire Middle East because I think ultimately in the world, that is the biggest issue facing us for a conflagration being able to, you know, encapsulate all of us.

CONAN: President Robinson, have you been able to go to Iran?

ROBINSON: I have indeed. In fact, it's very interesting. I was in Iran about six months before the election, which didn't work out very well for the hopes of many in Iran. But I was there for a - for an interreligious conference, which was co-organized by former - by Vice President Khatami, President Khatami, and the former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell...

CARTER: Bondevik.

ROBINSON: Yeah, Bondevik, who is a Lutheran pastor. And they have kept in touch. They both have centers, and the two centers organized a conference in Tehran and brought moderate religious and others like myself, I'm not religious as such but I believe very strongly in the potential role for good of religion, especially moderate religious voices in our world.

And it was a very interesting conference, and it could have been a path forward, but unfortunately the election in Iran went the other way. But I think you're right, Dennis is right. We need to remember that in Iran, there are so many voices, women, young people, moderate religious voices, who want change, and we shouldn't demonize Iran and as sometimes happens in the media that somehow everything there is bad.

I would love to go back to Tehran because Iran is such an important country and such a cultural country, and we have to somehow change the conversation.

CARTER: She (technical difficulty) interested in what's happening here in Egypt concerning moderate voices. We met yesterday with the grand imam of al-Azhar. He's the head of a university that have 120,000 students, but he's also the philosophical and religious leader of the Sunni Muslims throughout the world. And we met at his headquarters there with a large group of Christians as well - Catholics, evangelists, Lutherans, Copts and so forth. And he has written - and the people agree with him - an outline for the future of Egypt, which is very interesting and very moderate in tone.

And we brought those principles up with President Morsi after we met with the religious leaders and asked him if he agreed with him because they are so moderate and pleasing to Western ears. And Morsi said he helped draft that particular statement and signed it when it was done. So I think this is a good sign of what moderate voices, Christians and Muslims and Jews for instance, working together can bring about as a new nation is formed in Egypt.

CONAN: Dennis, thanks very much.

DENNIS: You bet. Neal?

CONAN: Yeah?

DENNIS: Just one final question if - or a comment and question. Are you working with Tony Blair and his faith initiative as well? Because they're doing some of the similar kinds of things with younger people. And then finally, is there any possibility you could come to Washington, D.C., and work with our Congress?


CONAN: Good - President Carter has tried that in the past.


CONAN: I don't know if he wants to go there again but...

DENNIS: I understand.

CONAN: Regarding...

DENNIS: Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Thanks very much. President Carter, regarding former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

CARTER: The answer to both of those questions is no.


CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Lewis(ph). Lewis with us from Pullman, Washington.

LEWIS: Hi. Honored to be on with you two. And I was wondering what you guys could tell me about having The Elders come to bear on climate change because it's a transnational issue, and it's something that we just have really been brushed under the carpet during this global recession particularly.

CONAN: Mary Robinson, I know this is something that is of concern, but how do you address it?

ROBINSON: Well, we have the benefit as elders of having Gro Brundtland among us and who chaired the Brundtland Commission more than 25 years ago. And she and I and President Cardoso, the former president of Brazil, was also very knowledgeable and concerned about climate issues. We're together as elders in Rio, and we linked with four youngers, one of them from China that I mentioned earlier. The others were from Nigeria, from Sweden and from Brazil itself.

And we had a dialogue before Rio about these issues to show how intergenerational they were. And then we had statements. We participated in panels, and we spoke very strongly and Gro Brundtland had particular authority because of her background, she's the mother of sustainable development. And we urged the necessity for the good completion of the Millennium Development Goals, for the need for sustainable development goals.

But I'm very glad to get Lewis' question on air in the United States because when I'm there I do despair of the climate deniers because that's not something we have so much of a problem with in Europe. And in countries like Africa, they laugh about climate deniers because they're coping with the changes in climate in poor...

CARTER: Right.

ROBINSON: ...communities - the lack of seasons, the long periods of drought, the flash flooding. I see the undermining of poverty. So we need to get very urgent about this and make it more people centered and realize that we don't - we're not heading for a safe world that's below two degrees Celsius, which is what was promised in Cancun at the climate conference. It's, to me, a huge human rights issue, apart from being an environmental and development issue.

CONAN: Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former U.N. commissioner for human rights; also with us, former President Jimmy Carter, two members of The Elders. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Larry(ph) is on the line with us from Sheridan in Oregon.

LARRY: Yes. Thanks for taking my call. To both presidents, with - in spite of all of your amazing efforts over the years, has there ever been a scenario or do you ever envision a scenario where you just have to throw up your hands and say this is just absolutely unworkable, whether it would be a Middle East situation or anything like that?

CONAN: President Carter?

CARTER: Well, I think we've had one major disappointment. That is in Zimbabwe. The Elders, particularly the four of us who are from Africa, were very interested in bringing about some reconciliation of the terrible tragedy in Zimbabwe under President Mugabe. And so we were going there for a conference to make one of our visits. He forbade us to come into the country. So we had to bring people from Zimbabwe who were very strong spokespeople for peace and for human rights out of Zimbabwe to meet us in South Africa.

So that's one of the places we have been denied entry. But we're pretty well old enough now to realize that there are setbacks in life, and we are pretty well persistent. We don't give up easily. And I was - even in Zimbabwe, we're waiting for an opportunity to go back in maybe when Zimbabwe orchestrates the next election, which is mandated by their own people for next year or so. So that's one of the examples.

ROBINSON: If I may, I think we should never throw up our hands on a country or say it's a failed country. We did that with Somalia. The world turned away. I was in Somalia in 1992 as president of Ireland. And after that, U.S. troops did go in, and it didn't work well. And U.S. troops were killed and humiliated and withdrew. And somehow, we just turned our backs. And what happened in our interconnected world, the Somali problem of pirates, piracy, the Somali problem of being a place for al-Shabab linked to al-Qaida.

And we had to learn that actually we need to re-engage, which is happening now, and there's a government emerging in Somalia which is the best hope for the people of Somalia. So I think a lesson that we've learned and certainly we would say this very much as elders as President Carter had said about Zimbabwe, we don't give up. We are determined that every country, in this interconnected world, problems in one country if we don't address them and support will spill over into other countries.

CONAN: President Carter, where are you off to next?

CARTER: I'll go to spend the next few days here with The Elders. This is our semi-annual meeting, and we decided to come to Cairo because it's so important for this entire region, including the Mideast peace process and the formation of a new government. But I go from here to Germany, and I'll be meeting a lot of people there, including other Nobel Prize winners to talk about peace and - in this region and in other places. So I'll be going from here to Germany, and then I hope I'll go back to my home in Plains.

CONAN: And, President Robinson, a quick answer if you could, we just have a few seconds left, but Steven(ph) in Cincinnati wanted to ask if you could comment on the idea of peace in Ireland being something of a template for peace in the rest of the world.

ROBINSON: I think that's true. We had a terrible conflict that broke our hearts in Northern Ireland, but the two governments, the British and Irish government, worked very closely together with a whole lot of other groups - religious groups, civil society groups, women's groups - and we have - we're very proud of the fact that peace was brought about, that we now have a shared executive in Northern Ireland. And that the lessons of Northern Ireland are drawn upon because there was, unfortunately, a religious component of Protestants and Catholics fighting because the Catholics were aligned to a Catholic Republican Ireland and the Protestants being loyal to the British crown. And so, you know, we can learn from situations, and we got a lot of support from the United States. We got a lot of support from the European Union. And I must say we are very grateful for the fact that there was that outside support, which shows that in situations of conflict (technical difficulty) we have those support.

CONAN: President Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland; former President Jimmy Carter, we thanked them both very much for their time and their role as The Elders. Coming up, Sylvia Poggioli joins us to talk about Italy. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.