It was about as high-level a gathering of former leaders as one could imagine.
Former President Jimmy Carter was there. Former Irish President Mary Robinson was in attendance. Kofi Annan, who just stepped down as Secretary General of the United Nations, was sitting tall.
And, on the far side of the small stage, relaxing with a hint of a smile on his face, was the most famous former leader of them all and the man who had brought them together for the occasion – former South African President Nelson Mandela.
That is what this clutch of influential men and women are calling themselves. And Wednesday, on Mandela's 89th birthday, they gathered here in Constitution Hill (a former complex where Mandela and other political prisoners were held under apartheid) to unveil their new global initiative and explain their intentions.
"This group of elders will bring hope and wisdom back into the world," said British businessman Richard Branson. He and his friend, the rock star Peter Gabriel, came up with the idea and pushed for the creation of such a group. "The elders will play a role in bringing us together to help unnecessary human suffering and to celebrate the wonderful world we are privileged to be part of."
The other members of the group of elders, announced yesterday, are Graça Machel, a Mozambican human rights activist and Mandela's wife (they celebrated their ninth wedding anniversary Wednesday); Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in extending loans to impoverished borrowers; and Li Zhaoxing, China's foreign minister, until this year.
A chair was left empty on the stage for another elder who was unable to travel to South Africa yesterday – human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ela Bhatt, a women's trade union leader in India, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, two other members of the elders, were absent from the launch.
Elders of a 'global village'
"We all live in a global village, but what is the state of that global village? No one country, no matter how powerful, can resolve our problems," said Mr. Annan, listing problems such as "poverty, environmental degradation, infectious diseases, international organized crime, and weapons of mass destruction," as some of those the group would be turning its attention to.
In an interview with the Monitor, Mr. Carter explained that the elders hope to articulate new approaches to global issues and share wisdom by "helping to connect voices all over the world." He was quick to add that they would work to complement, not duplicate or compete with, the efforts of other organizations and leaders.
Asked why "elders" such as themselves would be able to solve some of the very problems that dogged them when they were in power, Carter suggested that being free agents would make the task easier.
Now free from the constraints of office
"There were problems [in the past] that we [as leaders] did not solve because of a lack of time, or because of very intense pressures from our own constituencies, or because we were too bogged down with multiple, simultaneous questions to answer," says Carter. "But the elders ... have complete freedom to escape from the restrains of political niceties and be able to do as Nelson Mandela pointed out – we can talk to anyone and become involved in any issue."
The elders declined to elaborate on which issues they would first address. But, at a press conference following the announcement, Ms. Robinson hinted that they might focus on human rights.
"We are coming up to the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights," she said, adding that they might want to play a role in "reframing the agenda of human rights."
"The principle of universal human rights has become very politicized. There are double standards and people feel alienated," she explained. "The elders can make it a living document … that we can certainly do."
The idea to put together such a group came about before the Iraq war, said Mr. Gabriel and Mr. Branson in interviews with the Monitor.
"We were chewing the fat, as we do quite regularly, and Richard had Madiba [Mandela] coming to the house," recalled Gabriel. "That was the first time that it was mentioned to him."
"I had seen Mandela had spoken out vehemently against the [Iraq] war and I contacted him to see if he would go to Iraq and try and get Saddam Hussein to go live in Libya," says Branson.
Mandela was willing, but two weeks later, before he was able to begin such a mission, the war had already begun. "An elder or a group of elders could have persuaded Hussein to leave and we would have avoided the war," says Branson.
The elders, said Robinson, had already begun working and the group would meet "as often as was necessary."
Prodded by Branson, Gabriel closed off the ceremony by singing his old hit song "Biko" about Stephen Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in 1977. Tears flowed as the audience hummed to the music.