Melding serious statesmanship and a dose of audacity, former South African president Nelson Mandela and a clutch of world-famous figures were to launch a private alliance yesterday to make diplomatic assaults on the globe's most intractable problems.
The alliance, was scheduled to be unveiled during events marking Mandela's 89th birthday late yesterday. It will be called the Elders. It includes the retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu; former US president Jimmy Carter; former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and former Irish president Mary Robinson.
Many, including Mandela, have been early and harsh critics of US President George W. Bush and US foreign policy, particularly toward Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The group's members and backers have insisted that they were guided neither by ideology nor by geopolitical bent.
Mandela, in remarks prepared for yesterday, said that since members no longer held public office, they could work solely for the common good, not for outside interests.
"This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken," he wrote. "Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair."
Whether governments that become the objects of the Elders' efforts would agree remains to be seen. One of the group's founders and principal financial backers, British tycoon Richard Branson, said leaders he had briefed -- including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and South African President Thabo Mbeki -- "very much support the initiative."
"There will always be skeptics of any positive initiatives, but these are people giving up their time for nothing," Branson said. "Most individuals in the world would welcome a group of people who are above ego, who, in the last 12 or 15 years of their lives, are above partisan politics."
The Elders would not try to solve all the world's problems but would work on those where they could do some good, he said.
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