The Elders


Building momentum on global issues in New York

Last week, world leaders gathered in New York for the UN General Assembly. Four Elders travelled to the city to participate in the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals and host bilateral events on strengthening the UN.

One such event was a high-level meeting co-hosted with the Accountability, Coherence & Transparency Group (ACT). In front of a capacity audience of UN diplomats, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Ernesto Zedillo took part in a panel on making the selection of the next UN Secretary-General next year more transparent.

Speaking as part of the panel on UN Secretary General selection, Gro Harlem Brundtland said:

I believe that one of the most important ways in which we could enhance the role of the Secretary-General would be to have a single, longer term of office.

Such a change, first proposed in 1996 by no less of an authority on the UN than Sir Brian Urquhart, would help to strengthen the independence of the Secretary-General – and thus his or her ability to take the right decision in moments of crisis.

This change would also prevent the Secretary-General from having to spend the latter part of the first term running for re-election, and limit the unfortunate practice of candidates offering high-level posts in return for political support.

Ernesto Zedillo reflected on the need for the next Secretary-General to have vision:

"This is essential to reinforce the UN's relevance in coming years."

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Ernesto Zedillo were joined by distinguished fellow panellists including:

Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís and Estonian Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand, who concurred on the need for an open and transparent selection process.

President Solís also emphasised the role of the UN General Assembly:

We need the General Assembly to take a more active and robust role in the selection of the next Secretary-General.”

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Hina Jilani then explored ways to improve the Security Council’s ability to prevent and stop mass atrocity crimes. Central to this was addressing the use of the veto by the five permanent members (P5) of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Co-hosting the high-level panel discussion with the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the International Peace Institute, Gro Harlem Brundtland said:

The UNSC can only remain influential to promote peace and security if most influential countries are working together.

The veto, if used, should be publicly explained and that country should propose how civilians should be protected.

Reflecting on current challenges in Syria and Libya, she highlighted that the P5 tended to choose geopolitical objectives before the UNSC mandate to protect populations and keep the peace. She added that under Responsibility to Protect, all states agreed that "national sovereignty cannot be an excuse to fail to protect threatened populations."

Hina Jilani added that:

The veto is a privilege that must be exercised wisely and in accordance with international law.

The Elders’ call for the P5 not to give up the veto, but to treat it with a sense of responsibility it deserves.

No government, no matter what the circumstances, should be allowed to commit mass atrocities and escape accountability.

She also implored the UNSC to put aside political interests, be collaborative and ensure international law is followed; and reminded the audience that the functioning of the Security Council is not just up to the P5 but all of its members.

The importance of addressing veto misuse was clear during the event:

Dr Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, who moderated the discussion said:

"There has been a growing momentum from governments and civil society around the world calling for veto restraint."

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO of the International Crisis Group added:

"Veto has too often become an excuse to stop the conversation and stop efforts to find solution."

The cost of veto misuse was starkly highlighted by Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International:

It is clear to us that use of the veto by P5 has blocked the UNSC fulfilling [its] core function to protect populations.”

He also highlighted the danger of an inaction:

“If you have a global organisation that is not able to solve global problems, people are going to look for bilateral methods.”

Related to veto restraint, Jan Eliasson, the UN Deputy Secretary-General reflected on the failure of the international community in fulfilling its obligations to protect civilians under the Responsibility to Protect framework and added that “prevention must be the rule, not the exception” and that the UNSC must react to earliest signs of conflict.”

The next day, Graça Machel joined Gro Harlem Brundtland at the Social Good Summit to discuss ethical leadership and meeting the challenges ahead with the Global Goals - the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

On ethical leadership, Graça Machel said: "When you are in position of leadership, you are there to serve."

She also reflected on the success of the MDGs:

"We learned to work together in a focused way.”

Gro Harlem Brundtland added:

The results we can now celebrate are because we used the millennium to focus leaders.”

Both Elders also called on the audience to learn the Global Goals:

You won't engage with them if you don't know what they are"

Looking forward, Graça Machel reminded the audience:

"What the Global Goals bring is the opportunity for everyone to take responsibility. We all have space to make a difference."

Photos: The Elders | Neville Elder

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The Elders are independent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.

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