Leveraging Multilateralism to Prevent Conflict: A Conversation with The Elders

Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Don Pollard
Mary Robinson

Chair, The Elders; Former High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations; Former President, Ireland

Ban Ki-moon

Deputy Chair, The Elders; Former Secretary-General, United Nations

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Member; The Elders; Former President, Liberia; Nobel Peace Laureate


President, Council on Foreign Relations; @RichardHaass

The Elders, an independent group of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, work to address challenges of peace-building, inequality, exclusion, and injustice in a rapidly changing world. Mary Robinson, Ban Ki-moon, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf discuss the vital role of a well-functioning multilateral system and how it can provide the tools and institutions needed to manage and prevent conflicts before they turn violent. 

HAASS: Well, good morning, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations on this soon to be sunny day here in New York City. I’m Richard Haass, and today we have a meeting with The Elders.

I’m a little bit uncomfortable with that. (Laughter.) We’re going to be accused of ageism. So we’re going to return to that in a second, but we’ve got two-thirds of the—it’s like the Kingston Trio minus the—one of the—one of the brothers.

But we have, closest to me, Mary Robinson, who is the chair of The Elders, and as you know has had a distinguished career in the realm of human rights, dealing with migration and other issues, and obviously in her home country of Ireland, where she and I over the years have done some work.

And sitting next to her is a gentleman well-known to those of you in New York, Ban Ki-moon, who is the former secretary-general of the United States and is now the—

ROBINSON: United Nations. (Laughs.)

HAASS: What did I say?

ROBINSON: You said “States.” (Laughs.)

HAASS: It’s early. It is early. (Laughter.) Of the United Nations. I apologize, sir. And is deputy head of The Elders.

We are going to have, traffic permitting, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. She is learning about the joys and wonders of the Long Island Expressway. (Laughter.) Why, when I—I grew up there, and just off the expressway it was known as the world’s longest parking lot at the—at the time. But hopefully she will join us.

The Elders, this delegation is in town this week to brief the United Nations Security Council, not the U.S. National Security Council, I believe this Wednesday. And they’ve got three issues at the top of their agenda: multilateralism, so the trip to the U.N. makes some sense; nuclear issues, concerns about nuclear proliferation, the arms control regime that is and is not; and third and far from least, climate change and the growing gap between the challenge on one hand and the international response on the—on the other.

So I’m going to begin with a few questions. I’m going to give them a hard time about why they call themselves The Elders. And then we are—we’re going to move on to a few collective issues, and then I may take advantage of the backgrounds of these two individuals and focus in on one or two questions that are pertinent in particular to the countries they come from.

But let’s begin with the three issues that you all mentioned. Why did you choose those? What’s your criteria for choosing where you think you can make a difference? Is it the most important? Is it issues that are being ignored? Is it where you see a window or an opportunity for making a difference? Because you know, God knows there’s no shortage of things that you could potentially work on. You could triple the size of your organization and you still wouldn’t have enough manpower. So how is it you choose what it is you all focus on?

ROBINSON: Well, first of all, let me defend the word “elders.” (Laughter.) I think it’s a sign of culture if you value the wisdom of your elders, and we’re very proud of the fact that Nelson Mandela brought us together. We’re also humble about it because he warned us when he brought us together in July of 2007, on his eighty-ninth birthday, that we should be independent, that we should bring—you know, have courage, bring hope, et cetera, but that we should also listen to communities because they know more than we do—the outside does about their issues.

And we marked our—the end of our tenth year last July at a very good gathering of communities that live by Mandela’s values that we’d building up to in the year called Sparks of Hope. Obama was there giving the Nelson Mandela Lecture. And immediately afterwards I went with Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi to Zimbabwe to try to promote a fair election process there at the end of July, and of course he wasn’t feeling very well, and unfortunately got pneumonia and never really recovered. And then we had to choose a new chair and I had to step into big shoes, Archbishop Tutu first of all and then Kofi Annan.

But how do we choose our priorities? We actually have six programs. We also work on health, universal access to health; we work on justice; we work on migrants and refugees. But the overarching issues are the sort of fractured vulnerability now of the multilateral system, something that I don’t think many of us were predicting a few years ago that it would be so vulnerable and in all kinds of ways, including the WTO on the trade side, and climate change and nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, as the two existential threats, the overarching existential threats that we are not coping with. And it’s very surprising that the nuclear issue isn’t more on people’s minds and on their agenda.

HAASS: But all of you have had positions of power. When you’re president, when you’re secretary-general, you have a degree of authority and power. Now you’re out of power. And what you now have is a voice and you’ve got the ability—you have access. You have the ability to convene. You have, potentially, influence. So talk a little bit—is your—do you focus on people who have power, or do you focus on journalists or others who create a context in which people who do have power operate? What is your sense of—what have you learned about the ability to make a difference from the outside? It’s an issue near and dear to our hearts because we find ourselves in a similar situation, you know.

ROBINSON: I would say we try to both meet with heads of government—the Security Council tomorrow, the P5 countries in particular—and we also try to fulfill Nelson Mandela’s very strong sense of being on the side of the poor, the marginalized, the young, et cetera. So, hence, the Sparks of Hope that we built up during our tenth anniversary year.

We also took on child marriage as an issue. And it was an issue that was being worked on by discrete groups in different countries, almost afraid to say what they were doing because it was very sensitive. And the fact that The Elders came in and gave it a strong endorsement, and then we organized a huge network which I’m sure some of you are aware of called Girls Not Brides—and it tackles one of the big issues, that ten million girls a year still marry way before they’re able for it and with terrible results for themselves and their children—their babies, which they—you know, mortality of babies, et cetera.

So, you know, we try to exercise our power in different ways. We held a meeting in Addis Ababa recently as one of our two meetings in the year. We chose to be in Addis so that we could have discussions with the African Union, but also so that we could meet with—and we had very good meetings with—the president and in particular with the prime minister, with Abiy, who spent three hours with us and showed us what he’s planning, et cetera. And you know, I think it’s good to get the confidence of a young, hopefully good leader of an African country, and we’ll build on that. And of course, we’ve just issued a strong statement on Sudan, which we’re very worried about.

HAASS: I want to come back to Sudan.

Ki-moon, you’ve joined The Elders at a time when the principal architect of the multilateral order, the United States, is, shall we say, questioning its seventy-five-year commitment to multilateralism. So let’s choose the issue that you were most associated with at—during your tenure at the U.N., which is climate change. And the United States has indicated its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. On the regulatory front the United States is taking several steps that I expect do not meet with your unconditional approval. So what can be done? Because as I see it, even if the world fulfilled Paris it would fall short of what needs to be done, and from what I can see the world is not even going to meet the Paris guidelines. So what is—what is your thinking about what needs to be done and what’s realistic to be done in the—on the climate front?

BAN: Well, first of all, it’s a great pleasure and honor for me to be back to this CFR. And I see already many old friends and colleagues with whom I used to work hard to maintain and strengthen multilateral system.

Now, as former secretary-general and as one of the—just the citizens, global citizens, and as one of The Elders, I am deeply concerned and even angry at what is now happening, what has happened over multilateral system, all of us which have been working so hard to strengthen and benefit from this multilateralism each other from all other countries.

Current threat to multilateralism, many people say that multilateralism is under attack or in disarray or whatever. Many people use—describe this situation in different ways. Whatever you may be—

HAASS: We prefer the word—“disarray” is the preferred word, yeah. (Laughter.)

BAN: Yeah, disarray. Yeah, disarray.

Anyway, I should be one of the persons who should always speak out, you know, most strongly about all this, what is happening.

As far as climate change is concerned, it was the United States under President Obama who has been really leading this campaign to embrace China and India. And there were many skeptics and many countries who were not—who were very much reluctant to join for many, many reasons. But working together with the United Nations under the principles of multilateralism, President Obama and his team in the United States really worked very hard, finally engaging Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Now he said he’s withdrawing from this. I did my best as a private citizen, writing an op-ed to some influential U.S. papers just to think about this very seriously. Then he finally withdrew this one.

Now, even at this time, while U.S. withdrawal has given a serious blow to this multilateralism, particularly on climate change, I am encouraged at this time people still are very much committed to implementing this Paris climate change agreement. Even in the United States, there is a campaign called We Are Still In. This is quite encouraging, that many governors, including California, Massachusetts, and Washington, Oregon, Illinois, et cetera, big states’ governors, they are joining in. And more than three hundred mayors of big cities—big cities—they are joining. And more than one thousand big business CEOs, they said that they believe that this is the only way, even though it’s not perfect.

Nobody says that Paris climate change is a perfect one, but that was the one which—on which international community was able to agree on because the decision-making process is so strange, so absurd. One hundred and ninety-five state parties signed this agreement, but the decision process is like everybody has veto power. One hundred and ninety-four would support it, but one country would have killed it, like Nicaragua could have killed it. At the last minute, Nicaragua said that, well, we are not ready to support it, then it would have been the end of Paris climate change agreement.

HAASS: But doesn’t that raise questions about what you might call the U.N. General Assembly model of multilateralism? Don’t we need to think of multilateralism in a much more designer or flexible way, rather than an all-or-nothing approach? Because either you don’t get everybody or it gets so diluted in order to get everybody onboard it’s like a typical consensus with a hundred ninety-four. Instead, why not just get, say, the fifteen countries that do most of the release of gases that contribute to climate change? If you could—that gives you 85 percent of the answer. So why not think about different approaches to multilateralism rather than the model of your former organization?

BAN: Multilateralism is not unilateral, of course, as you said. It has to work from both rich countries and developing countries. That’s the main purpose, because there are so many countries who have been devastated by climate phenomena, climate consequences, but they simply don’t have any resources to mitigate and adapt to changing situation. The Paris climate change agreement is just trying to focus on that. So we have—all has to work, and everyone—all the hands should be on that. That’s the main, main purpose.

That’s why we really wanted to have comprehensive, but the point agreeable by all the countries. That’s the point. And sometimes multilateralism, you don’t expect that anything should be perfect 100 percent. It may be 80 percent or 90 percent perfect, but still it’s much better than acting unilaterally.

I’m very much sorry to tell you that the countries who benefited most from the benefits of multilateralism are now withdrawing from this. It is almost inconceivable to believe that the United States has withdrawn from U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N.—United States has withdrawn from UNESCO. The U.S. has been leading not only with military power, not only economic power, but U.S. has been showing such great moral voice, human rights, human dignity, that U.S. is now withdrawing simply because of one or two countries’ complaining about this human rights issue.

It’s true that Israel has been most debated, most criticized in the Human Rights Council. Well, you were high commissioner for human rights. Then U.S. withdraw from this. Instead of withdrawing, one should be there. It was I—you know, when I was secretary-general, I’ve been speaking very—advising them to join the Human Rights Council when the U.S. was outside of Human Rights Council. Then, finally, President Obama agreed to my position. It’s better if you have problems or objections, you’re better speak inside, inside the Human Rights Council.

HAASS: That’s an—you know, it’s a legitimate debate about whether it’s better to stay inside and argue, or whether to leave it because you don’t believe the group has legitimacy. We’re not going to solve it.

Let me raise a different issue, which is an area where multilateralism’s had a major setback. You were founded in 2007. Am I right?


HAASS: So in 2005 the U.N. General Assembly came together to pass R2P, responsibility to protect. And the whole idea was, as the phrase suggests, that when situations take place within member countries, either the government is the agent of a major problem or it lacks the capacity or the will to deal with it, it loses some of the protections of sovereignty. The international community has a responsibility to protect. That was then. It was formed—this was created/done after Rwanda, never again. And since then we’ve had half-a-million people lose their lives in Syria. More than half the country has been forced to leave their homes—some internally displaced, some refugees. We have the situation in Libya. We have the situation now in Yemen. So your multilateralism is at the center of what you do, yet it seems to me if we brought R2P to the U.N. today it would fail. It probably could not pass. The Chinese, the Russians, the great powers wouldn’t approve it, and a lot of others wouldn’t approve it. So where does that leave—where does that leave us? And as you know, we always talk about an international community; doesn’t seem to be much of one.

BAN: You raised a very important point at this time about responsibility to protect. Well, world leaders agreed on responsibility to protect in 2005 special summit to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of United Nations. That whole international community applauded. Then they have not discussed how this R2P should be implemented.

During my campaign to be secretary-general, I committed myself if and when I am elected I would make sure that this R2P should put into practice and operation. It took many, many times, and member states were reluctant to agree how to implement this R2P. They were in between many—many disastrous situations have happened in the—in the world, but leaders were not moving. It was quite disappointing by all—just a lack of global leadership, lack of global leadership.

Only in 2011, when Libyan situation happened in the course of this Arab Spring, for the first time this R2P was enacted by the Security Council, reluctantly, with China and Russia joining this resolution. But they didn’t support; they abstained. And in the end, anyway, this was enacted and put into operation. When Gadhafi was killed, Libyan crisis just continuing into more chaotic situations, it seemed that people had lost confidence in what the Western powers had promised to certain member states of the Security Council. Since then, this R2P was not being able to be enacted.

In Syrian cases, the Security Council has taken very few actions, even on humanitarian issues, because of mistrust, a distrust among the members of P5. They were not able to agree on any actions, even including on humanitarian support. That is a source of great tragic consequences where multilateralism has not been working properly.

That I am very much, you know, helpless at this time, as a former secretary-general. We’ve been—I’ve been speaking out. I’ve been speaking out to U.S. government and most of the P5s that they should show their global leadership rather than national leadership. Most of the leaders, they are national leaders rather than becoming global leaders. It is very hard to see global leaders at this time.

HAASS: You’re from Europe. What Ban Ki-moon just said, isn’t that in some ways the message of the European elections, that we’ve seen the balance between, say, Brussels and national capitals shifting more in the direction of national capitals? We’re seeing it in this country, America first. Your organization or network is founded on this principle of multilateralism, global citizenship, and the like, yet we seem to be living in an age, if anything, of a resurgence of national identity and nationalism.

ROBINSON: Well, The Elders were formed by Nelson Mandela to bring hope as well, so let’s have some hope. Look at the European elections. The wonderful resurgence of the green parties in different countries, including my own. The fact that young people see issues of climate as being international issues.

And I want to kind of think again about what was agreed in 2015, weak as it might be, and I mean the two big frameworks: the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement. I was the special envoy of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the time before Paris on climate change. And I was an observer for the 2030 negotiations, which were messy, two years or so after the Rio conference messy, but came out with quite a remarkable package, the 2030 Agenda, full of language of human rights, gender equality, leave no one behind, prioritize the furthest behind first—which I’d never heard before in a—because it was voluntary.

And then fast forward to the Paris Climate Agreement. And that was a treaty, but it weakened on the way except for one thing. And I was part of the informal negotiations that were going on, the ministerial meetings, which were incredibly boring because every country repeated its lines. But it meant that Tony deBrum of the Marshall Islands also spoke as foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, and he kept saying over and over again: Do you want my country to go underwater? Do you want us no longer to be a sovereign people? Is that what you—are you really saying—et cetera. We need 1.5 in the text. And then we got the new goal, newly articulated goal, well below two degrees, working for 1.5 degrees. I thought at the time—I think most of us thought—that was the small island states, it was a kind of concession to them until Paris had to ask the scientists, because it had not been studied before, what does this mean? What’s the difference between 1.5 degrees and two degrees? And the scientists—the IPCC said very clearly it is very, very worrying what the difference is because that—it’s in that period that basically the coral reefs disappear, the Arctic ice disappears, the permafrost starts to seriously melt and throw up more greenhouse gases, and therefore we have to stay—the outer limit of what is safe is two degrees and we must stay really at 1.5 degrees.

Now, we’ve then had the species report recently, the extinction of species. And it seems to me that those two reports—the IPCC report and the species report—have changed something very dramatic. They have made the two frameworks of 2015 imperative, although they were negotiated as being voluntary. And I think there is a possibility of building on a movement that is happening. It’s happening with children, Greta Thunberg. She has mobilized millions of schoolchildren and they’re going to continue. Young people, Extinction Rebellion. Women’s leadership as never before is taking on this issue. I’m very encouraged. I’m in touch with a lot of women who are—women in Africa and Asia, as the secretary-general would know, already prioritized climate change because they saw it visibly on the ground. Women in Europe and women here in this country are beginning to really prioritize climate change. It was prioritized in the Women Deliver Conference in Vancouver in a way that had never happened before at a major meeting of women. Business is prioritizing that is non-fossil-fuel, et cetera.

How do we just connect the dots and make it a pressure? Because that’s—that is—that would solve our problem. If we really implemented seriously the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement ambitiously, increasing the ambition which the agreement looks for, then we can use this—it’s only eleven years now—to get back on track to a safe world. If we don’t do that, what kind of species are we? You know, a little bit, to say the least of it, mad.

HAASS: Or endangered. Let me—let me introduce one other issue because I know it’s a priority of yours, and then we’ll open it up for questions from our members. We’ve talked a little bit about the state of multilateralism, a little bit about climate, a little bit about R2P. Let’s talk a little bit about nuclear issues because I know that’s on your agenda. You’ve got your pamphlet.

ROBINSON: Yeah. Yeah.

HAASS: Again, I would think this is a worrying time for things nuclear. We’ve had the slight unraveling of the INF Treaty—American charges of Russian noncompliance, the United States announced it would leave; China, shall we say, showed no interest in joining. You’ve got a couple years from now the expiration of the START agreements, all sorts of uncertainty surrounding that. The negotiations with North Korea have gone nowhere.


HAASS: The question of Iran. The United States has announced it’s leaving the JCPOA. Iran is now beginning to take steps to get breakout of it. There’s an article in today’s New York Times about that. Pakistan still has the fastest-growing nuclear inventory in the world, according to some. Russia’s developing new generation of systems. And so on and so forth. So, you know, we thought with the end of the Cold War that nuclear issues would likely recede, and here we are thirty years into a post-Cold War era and if anything nuclear issues seem to be getting more pronounced.

ROBINSON: Do you want to—

HAASS: By the way, I’m not the hope guy. You’re the hope people. (Laughter.) I should make it clear there’s a division of labor up here and I’m Mr. Glass is Half-Full or -Empty or whatever, and you’re on the other side of this.

ROBINSON: (Laughs.)

BAN: It’s very, very easy to break down the world’s whatever buildings or structures you may construct. It may take a hundred times more efforts to build a house; it’s easy when it’s—I’m talking about the Iranian JCPOA. It was the work of P5s for the almost—for unprecedently working together under the leadership, again, of the United States. Then, with a change of administration, they just withdrew this one.

I’m afraid—I’m going to discuss this matter tomorrow morning—tomorrow afternoon at the Security Council. When U.S. was—it was reported that President Trump was going to withdraw from this JCPOA, I was just a private citizen studying at Harvard University. I came myself. I didn’t know Ambassador Nikki Haley, but I wanted to meet her. And I met her for about an hour. I persuaded her that you should not—you should report to President Trump that you should not destroy this one. Why? Not only this Iranian issue, but also it may have a very negative impact on North Korean nuclear issue.

What kind of a message can United States enjoy trust from many other countries when hardly won—hard-won negotiation is broken just with the change of administration? Then what Kim Jong-un will say? Will he really be trusting United States, President Trump, after such long and hard-worked negotiation between the two countries? Then with a change of Trump administration next time maybe, then they may change this one. So it’s a matter of trust, again.

In addition to substance itself, addressing nuclear issues. INF, it’s easy, again, to break this one. It was also a hard-fought negotiation. It’s quite strange. Whenever it comes to Republican administration, my own experience is that when President Bush came, he abolished this ABM. Until President Clinton’s time, ABM was regarded as a strategic pillar of international peace and security. It had been repeatedly mentioned in all the joint statements, joint communique with any countries in the world with the United States. And they recognized that ABM was the strategic pillar of international peace and security. So we thought, and we believed, when President Bush came in, he just dismantled it.

Now, INF. Again, it was done a long time ago between the two superpowers. Now it’s destroyed again. What kind of a trust can United States expect to have as a global leader in international peace and security, not to mentioned international economic and development and human rights. On human rights issue, U.S. withdraw from this human rights council. On security issues, nuclear issues, they have killed the JCPOA, INF. And what happened to President Trump’s negotiation with Kim Jong-un? Can Kim Jong-un have full trust with what needs to be done with the United States? That’s politically, psychologically, in terms of credibility of a global leader, that is at stake when it comes to multilateralism in international peace and security.

HAASS: Do you want to say something on that, or should we open it up? Up to you.

ROBINSON: Just very briefly, I mean, part of the reason why The Elders have this policy paper on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament is that we are really concerned. I mean, you put it very starkly. And Ki-moon has also spoken to it. We’re at a more dangerous point than ever on this nuclear issue, and yet the world doesn’t seem to appreciate it. I mean, it’s really very, very concerning. You know, the possibility of slipping into something that we don’t want to even contemplate is—I mean, we’re closer to that doomsday clock than we’ve been for a long, long time. And, you know, but we still try to bring hope. (Laughs.)

HAASS: That’s good.

OK, we’re going to open it up to you all. Raise your hand, wait for the microphone. You know the drill. This is on the record. Anything you say can and will be used against you. (Laughter.) So you’ve now been read your Miranda rights.

Ms. Falk. You’re sitting up front. So we’ll get you, Pamela.

Q: Thanks. Thank you very much. It’s Pamela Falk from CBS News. And great to see both of you. Looking forward to seeing you at the United Nations.

First, to the secretary-general, in particular on nuclear nonproliferation you made an effort with North Korea. And I remember very well the trip that was going to be Kaesong. I was on it. Your interest was some kind of accommodation or at least some negotiations. Things have marched forward, and now they’re at a standstill. What is your suggestion? And would you recommend anything, now that you’re out of office—or, that office—to do in terms of easing sanctions, as two Security Council members suggest?

And to Madam Chairperson, it’s not fair, since we’re supposed to be talking about multilateralism, Richard. But tell us about the Irish backstop and where Brexit’s going? (Laughter.) Thank you.

HAASS: See I told you. I was going to ask the question about Northern—I don’t have to now. (Laughter.) So talk a little bit about—Ki-moon—about what your proposal—right now we seem to be stuck—ah, Madam President. Welcome. (Applause.)

Good morning.

SIRLEAF: Good morning to you.

HAASS: As someone who grew up on Long Island, I want to apologize for our expressway. (Laughter.) American infrastructure continues to lag behind where it needs to be. We just—we discussed multilateralism and the state it is in. A little bit on responsibility to protect. A little bit on the nuclear issue. And a question was just posed, first to Ban Ki-moon about what might be done to move ahead the negotiations with North Korea. And to Mary a question was just asked about where are we with Northern Ireland? And I’ll actually complicate the question a little bit. But, Ki-moon, why don’t you go first? And then we’ll broaden the conversation.

BAN: About the nuclear issue of North Korea, denuclearization of Korean Peninsula. I am disappointed that this Hanoi summit that didn’t go well as expected wholeheartedly by international community. Now, I had been engaged in negotiation with North Korea since the very first beginning, the very beginning of North Korean denuclearization. I was one of the first negotiators with North Korea. Kim Yong-chol was there at that time. It’s amazing that Kim Yong-chol, whom I met for the first time in 1991, he lasted—he’s been continuing, while there has been numerous changes of negotiators in South Korea. So you can see all difference between the two systems.

Now, talking about this issue, never in the past has there been such a great level of excitement on the possibility of agreeing—making a deal on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, it seems to be deadlocked for time being. But I don’t think this is deadlock which we had been experiencing in the past. It’s a little bit—I believe it is a little bit temporary deadlock. There is a chance—much better and bigger chance than before, than in the past, that they may resume these talks.

Now, what to know about trust building. There seems to be still not enough trust building between U.S. and North Korea particularly. As far as the South and North Koreans are concerned, significant level of trust building has been created. On the part of South Korea, mainly because of President Moon Jae-in’s—his positions—but he has been wholeheartedly engaging in, trying to embrace North Korea, even though he has been criticized by certain quarters of South Koreans that he has been too much one-sidedly trying to engage North Korea regardless of what—regardless of their behavior patterns. Now, in any way, the U.S. and North Korea should build more, you know, trust each other.

HAASS: Can I just push you on that, though? When the United States and North Korea should build trust, do you think we should put aside for now the goal of denuclearization as simply too ambitious, a bridge too far, and the United States and North Korea should be willing to sign some type of an interim agreement where North Korea would accept certain limits on its nuclear missile force and we would relieve some but not all sanctions. Would you favor an interim or partial approach?

BAN: Because this issue has been too long unresolved, if there needs to be an agreement, there should be a prefect one.

HAASS: A what?

BAN: A perfect one.

HAASS: A prefect one.

BAN: A perfect agreement. Otherwise, interim agreement will make another problem, another problem again. Now, so that’s what—that the main difference between North Korea and the United States. North Korea wants a gradual interim agreement. Just so that they can take a little bit—they can have some breathing space. The U.S. is now doing FFVD or CVID, whatever it may be called. As a former negotiator, and who has been dealing with this issue and dealing with North Korea, it is better to have as perfect as possible, otherwise you will continue to repeat this one. Then as—there needs to be some confidence building.

I think we need to think about how to deal with the humanitarian situation on North Korea. It seems that—it is true that their economic situation has been very bad during last—at least the food shortages during last two decades, longer than—chronic. And the South Korean government has recently announced to provide $8 million, which may not be big enough but it’s a symbolic gesture. Now, what to do with the Security Council sanction measures, there needs to be a certain wisdom how to deal with that. We may think about what U.S. has taken action vis-à-vis Iraq at the time of 1980 Iraqi War. At that time, there was food for—food for oil issues, even though it has a very negative—you know, negative images, because of the scandals. But that may be one of the ways which we can—when it comes to serious humanitarian crisis, we have to, first of all, support this humanitarian crisis.

HAASS: Thank you. We may not agree on all that, but I’m glad we got it out there.

So let’s just go back to the question of Northern Ireland for a second, and whether Brexit, if it goes ahead in some form, whether you see that as—what do you see as its implications? And some people think, does this make—does this put the question of Irish unification on the agenda?

ROBINSON: Yes, you said you were going to complicate an already complex question. It’s fascinating. I mean, at the moment obviously things are on hold because there is a competition for a new prime minister. A hundred and sixty thousand people will elect this new prime minister, conservative voters. And it looks as if it’s a sort of competition between Brexiteers, pretty hardline. The only thing the British Parliament has been able to agree on at the moment is that it does not want a hard Brexit. That’s the only vote that it has agreed on. But more and more I think, in Ireland, you know, we’re worried about the possibility of that becoming the default position. That is a big worry.

As it happens today, our foreign minister is in Northern Ireland desperately trying to get the executive back in Northern Ireland, because there’s been a complete government gap there for quite a long time. And you’ve tried, Richard, and I honor the fact that you tried so hard. You gave a lot of your personal time, which is not forgotten, in Ireland. And the interesting—I was mentioning earlier to Richard, the European elections were quite interesting in Northern Ireland, because for the first time you have one seat for DUP, one seat for Sinn Fein. The other seat should have gone to Ulster Unionists, but it went to the Alliance Party. So you had two very clear remain elections, you know, in that context, and only one—and the DUP have never represented the remain vote in Northern Ireland.

All of these issues are, how would I say, they’re shifting the ground now about the possibility, certainly if there’s a hard Brexit, of unionists in Northern Ireland saying: We’re actually better to maybe opt in. And a very early decision was taken by the twenty-seven, which I think very few people seem to know about, which was that Northern Ireland in the future, if the United Kingdom left the European Union, Northern Ireland would have the same right to opt back in as East Germany. And that is pretty unique, especially with Scotland looming and Catalonia looming, if you like, that that was agreed. But it was agreed. So it’s very hard to say how things are. I mean, the preferred option, I think, of most people in the south, I think most people on the island of Ireland, would be that we could continue with the excellent relations we’ve had with no Brexit. But that’s not an option that we have, it would appear.

It’s not clear what will happen. There’s now talk about deferring again next October, and working out more of a political declaration work, which is more flexible. The agreement, and I think the Irish backstop, is nonnegotiable. It has been agreed firmly. And it’s possible, through the political agreement if it hardens, to make it less necessary to have the Irish backstop. That’s one possibility of a way forward. And the other is the possibility of falling over the cliff into a hard Brexit.

HAASS: I want you all to relax. We’re not going to quiz you on this. (Laughter.)

Look, before I go to the next question, I want to formally welcome Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and acknowledge all that she’s done for her own country and beyond. Want to make sure we get one subject on the table which we haven’t had a chance, which is Sudan. You’ve been spending a lot of time there. It seems to be at a rather critical point yet again. Can you just say a little bit about what you are trying to accomplish—or you, The Elders, are trying to accomplish in the Sudan right now, and what you see as the prospects?

SIRLEAF: Well, I think, you know, we all know that Sudan has been subject to a very destructive dictatorship for so many years. And not much has been done by the African Union countries, particularly those in the neighborhood of Sudan, to have put a bit more pressure on change. Although, there’s been an indictment against the president and all of that. The tremendous effort that was undertaken by this valiant woman, you know, and those who worked with her to bring about change that ultimately led to a Bashir falling from power, and then to have it replaced by the generals who, again, took over and put in place the same kinds of conditions that infringe upon the rights of the individuals.

The Elders would aim to continue to argue for the people’s will to be respected, because what’s missing in all of this is no matter how courageous and gallant one person or a few people may be, if there are no strong institutions in the country that can uphold the kinds of policies, the kinds of practices that are dictated by law, and the rights of individuals protected by law, then it’s very difficult for it to be sustained. And so the mediation that would take place, and it’s ongoing as you know. Prime Minister Abe was just in Khartoum trying to make sure that he encouraged dialogue between the ruling generals and the civil society organizations. I don’t think he’s yet succeeded, because although the generals have agreed to limit the period of their rule, certainly some of the understandings they had about having an integration of some of the civil service in to the—into the new government, that has not worked out.

And so what can we do? I think elders and others concerned with the effort of promoting democracy will have to continue the pressure, getting the African Union more involved, getting the African neighboring states more involved in bringing pressure. You know, they’ve already been suspended from the African Union. And so that pressure has started. But it just shows, even though there’s a transition—political transition, but unless you have enough of those institutions in place to uphold that transition and to show that the effect of the change do take place, then it’s very difficult and you can have a reversal, and you can have a slipping back into the old order, as is what has happened in Sudan.

HAASS: A cautionary point.

Yes, ma’am.

Q: Masuda Sultan, All in Peace. I’m working to end—bring a peaceful end to America’s longest war.

I wanted to know if you all are watching the peace negotiations going on between the U.S. and the Taliban, and what you think, given that the Taliban reject the current political order, in September is when the Afghan presidential elections will happen, and the government will have a five-year mandate. Are you involved? Are you watching? Are you hopeful? And how do you think a peace deal could be implemented if the U.S. leaves?

ROBINSON: I think the truth is, it’s not something we follow very closely as Elders. We’re looking at a lot of issues, but, I mean, apart from what you mentioned, I wouldn’t be in a position to comment.

HAASS: OK. Warren.

Q: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.

You were talking earlier about the rise of nationalism and the growing ravages of climate change. It seems to me one of the consequences of those two phenomena coming together is the massive number of displaced people we now have in the world. And that situation is simply going to get worse. Do The Elders have a position or a form of council, particularly to the receiving nations—to put it in U.N. talk, to the Global North—as to how they should take care of this Global South problem?

ROBINSON: This certainly is something that we have both discussed, we have a policy paper on, we are—we believe that we need a new narrative about mobility of people, and a positive narrative. And we do believe that, you know, the European Union and the United States ought to be much more receptive of migrants, especially those forcibly displaced, whether it’s by conflict, whether it’s by climate increasingly. We also use opportunities. For example, when we were in Addis and we went to the big camp in Gambela which has refugees from South Sudan. And we spent a day there deliberately highlighting that. Ethiopia has the second-largest number of refugees and migrants displaced in Africa. And it actually—you know, it’s remarkable how—you know, how much it supports refugees from other countries, like South Sudan for example. And we then make the comparison with the policies of the European Union, for example. So we try with our moral voice. Ki-moon, yes.

BAN: Sure. If I may add to this. Now that we have more than sixty-five million refugees or migrants, people say that this is the first time—only during the Second World War had we had that many number of refugees. But in the peacetime, twenty-first century, we have so many refugees. I’m concerned that when the Syrian War began, and when there was Arab Spring and many people were just fleeing their country, people had been showing great sympathy, and they were really ready to support. And I, as the secretary-general, have hosted at least four international refugee support conferences, mobilizing billions of dollars. Three times in Kuwait and one time in London. So we were able to really do something. And even Turkish government, they were ready to support on their own.

Now that international attention is lessening, as multilateralism is now decreasing, and now that the United States—the biggest power—is now taking much, much less attention on this, then it is only the refugees and migrants, who are helpless people who do not need—who really need our immediate support. And that’s why we really need to strengthen multilateralism. And that’s why the international community should strengthen the capacity of the United Nations. United Nations does not have any capacity if there is no support from the member states, particularly those well-to-do countries—United States, European Union, and Japan, and some other, you know, countries. I’m afraid that the less and less attention is now being given. Just leaving them to their own is very much irresponsible as world leaders.

ROBINSON: Can I just mention another anecdote of visiting a camp? This time in Jordan, with Lakhdar Brahimi. Refugees from Syria. And I asked several people: You know, what do you think of the Syrians? And the answer I got—it was pretty well the same answer for those I asked: The Syrians are our neighbors. And when they are forced to leave their country, they become our guests. You know, very interesting. They’re our neighbors. When they’re forced to leave, they become our guests. That actually is the proper human response at a human level. But it’s not the response that we’re seeing, especially in those parts of the world that could well-afford, and gain from, having more migrants and refugees.

HAASS: President Sirleaf?

SIRLEAF: Because Africa always comes under focus when you’re talking about migrants and migration, and the recent crossing of the Mediterranean, and what has happened to the many Africans who crossed, became what was perceived to be a crisis. Because of that, people tend to forget that crossing borders has been something that’s happened all the lifetime of nations. And in the case of Africa, much of the crossing borders, much of those who move across, move across seeking better opportunities but also integrating into the local society, moving with capital, moving with technical skills. Those are the positive sides.

But because of this, there’s a need now to focus on how do you have a compact that promotes the orderly transfer of people and arrangements in which they respect the rules of their host countries, but at the same time their rights are respected as they cross borders? And I think that’s the kind of discussion that’s now going on, particularly among the European nations, those who are the ocean states, so to speak, to see how they might work out an arrangement with the African Union under the Economic Commission for Africa that’s taken a role in this, to see if one can have this to ensure that migration can retain the positive aspect which it has without developing into a crisis.


Q: Thank you very much. Mahesh Kotecha.

A question for whoever wants to respond on the panel. We see a disarray, as Richard said, in multilateralism. There are hopeful signs with The Elders, focusing on the hope. Do you see any rising, let’s say, efforts on the part of the rest of the world, as it were, that is not receding from multilateralism, to bring their upsurge to protect multilateralism being focused on some kind of an institutional way to provide protection until this too shall pass, shall we say?

HAASS: Here’s your chance to end on a positive note. I’ll do my best not to interrupt it. (Laughter.)

ROBINSON: I think there—you know, there is a sense—for example, look at the way Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, responded to a horrible, you know, mass killing of Muslims in her country, and then has moved to internationalize that with an initiative countering hate speech. I mean, it’s just one example but, with President Macron, they have launched, and The Elders are very supportive of this. So I think there—people are trying to find common areas where the world can come together and address issues. And recognize that this is a very bumpy time or multilateralism, as we’ve been saying. But hopefully this time will pass. In particular, a lot will depend on who the next president of the United States will be and, you know, what difference that will make to rebuilding a trust, hopefully, that at the moment is quite fractured. But that’s just one example.

HAASS: Ki-moon, or—do you have anything you feel optimistic about?

BAN: I can summarize like this way. With only multilateralism, international community both big and small, or rich and poor, have benefitted us. Now that those countries who benefitted most are now withdrawing from this multilateralism. That is a source of great concern. Now, there are benefits to both sides. Through multilateralism, smaller countries can find their venue where their voices can be heard aloud. So that’s very good for smaller countries. Even for bigger powers, they can shape the international order according to what they may think, without resorting any economic or any military power. So that’s the benefit. So I think both sides can benefit from multilateralism. That’s the benefit of good side of multilateralism. Yeah.

HAASS: President Sirleaf, you get the last word. What makes you feel good? (Laughter.)

SIRLEAF: Well, you know, I think there’s a lot going on now to ensure that the—say, the poorer countries, who may be the ones affected by the reduction in the level of support through multilateral institutions, that they now take more responsibility, that they now do better in the use of their own resources, and that they, as he said, they have a stronger voice. But I do believe that The Elders and other institutions must continue to put the pressure on to ensure that the kinds of partnership that multilateralism has brought into the world, and the protect that it provides for the poorer countries of the world, is something that ought to be preserved. And so if it means that most countries must fill the gap, and some of them are doing just that, to make up, it also means that one must work through the U.S. system, going around where the bottleneck is, to the other areas where one might have much more understanding of the value of multilateralism. Because it’s not just a gift in many cases. It’s mutuality in benefits, mutuality into a better and stronger world. And so I think we cannot let up, Elders and others, to ensure that this does continue, although the responsibility by the poorer ones becomes stronger by this.

HAASS: I want to thank these three distinguished and extraordinary individuals, first, for their decades of service, second, for coming here this morning, and, third, as you can see, they haven’t given up the fight. (Laughter.) So thank you very much. (Applause.)


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