The Elders, a unique group of former heads of government and other global leaders, founded in 2007 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, has added a former president of Mexico and an internationally known Pakistani human-rights advocate to its membership. The inclusion of Ernesto Zedillo, president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000, and Hina Jilani, a lawyer who argues human-rights cases in the Supreme Court of Pakistan and has served as a United Nations special envoy, was announced by Kofi Annan, who is now chairman of the group.
The mission of this select group is to study global issues, advocate for change and offer consultation to governments and other institutions in trouble. It does not seek publicity, working instead behind the scenes with current leaders, but it does enact public campaigns when the members feel an issue deserves wider attention. In recent years, the persistence of child marriage has been one of the group’s leading causes, through a program called Girls Not Brides.
The other members of The Elders are Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work in mediation for the UN; Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, which pioneered microlending and other support for poor women; Lakhdar Brahimi, a UN troubleshooter and former Algerian foreign minister; Gro Harlem Brundtland, the deputy chair, a former prime minister of Norway and director -general of the World Health Organization; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former reformist president of Brazil; Jimmy Carter; Graça Machel, a former education minister in Mozambique and global advocate for women’s and children’s rights; and Mary Robinson, former UN high commissioner for human rights. Mandela and Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, are honorary Elders.
In introducing the two new members of this select group, Annan described their careers as “models of ethical leadership and unwavering commitment to democratic values.” He added: “I trust that they can help us inspire and promote these principles, and bring us closer to overcoming the Elders’ priority challenges: tackling the root causes of conflict and building a more just and inclusive world.”
Jilani and her sister Asma Jahangir are both lawyers who have battled for more than two decades for the civil rights of Pakistanis — women, minorities and political prisoners, among them — in a dangerous atmosphere of attacks on human-rights defenders, the oppression of military rule and the militancy of Islamists. They have both (sometimes jointly) won numerous international awards for their courageous work. They created the first all-women law firm in the country and the first legal aid center.
“The neglect and threats faced by minorities all over the world is a growing concern of mine,” Jilani said in a statement with the news of her invitation to join The Elders. “I hope my new colleagues and I can emphasize this throughout our work.”
Zedillo, an economist, is the director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. He holds two graduate degrees from Yale. As president of Mexico, he was credited with piloting the country through democratic reforms that opened the way to a true multiparty political system. He also pulled Mexico out of a severe financial crisis, and set the country on a course to greater economic growth and the development of social programs to make that growth more equitable.
“Time and time again, acts of leadership have helped build peace and lifted millions out of poverty,” Zedillo said in a statement. “We must aim to achieve stability, security and prosperity on a global scale.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.