Desmond Tutu

Who in Syria will lead the people to safety? Who will prevent the great powers from causing further harm?

Since the Syrian tragedy began three years ago, commentators have been quick to lambaste one side or another for their lack of leadership, singling out Bashar al-Assad, or the rebels, or Russia, or the US, or the Arab League, or the UN, or perhaps another entity. We are spoilt for choice.

Meanwhile, the war rages on and Syria’s families continue to be torn apart. What overwhelms me with sadness is not the failing of one side or another, but the way this war has engulfed the world in a vacuum where peaceful appeals are hardly audible. It was tragic to see Western politicians who spoke out against military intervention get slammed for somehow being cowardly. Although their effort would not stop the killing outright, to hold back the war designs of their own leaders was a brave act.

So where is the ethical leadership in the Syria crisis? Why is it that any initiative which should ease the pain of Syrians seems so grindingly slow to take hold in the minds of our leaders? Impartial humanitarian access is still virtually absent in most of the country. Refugee services in neighbouring countries are still woefully underfunded. We are being promised a peace conference for more than a year.

I reflect upon this as I prepare to attend a meeting, in Cape Town, of a wonderful group of people called The Elders, which I chaired for six years since it was founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007. What defines an “Elder” is that we have retired from office but are still committed to promoting peace and human rights.

Kofi Annan has recently taken over from me as the chairman of the group. It was about time somebody did. As Elders, we should oppose presidents for life. Now I am finally taking my retirement seriously and will become an “honorary” Elder.

The Syria crisis has given the Elders reason to reflect. Our colleague Lakhdar Brahimi is the current UN and Arab League mediator for Syria. Annan held the position before him. Their frustrations have been palpable as the death toll has crept onward, now in excess of 100 000 human lives. They have been candid about their own powerlessness for as long as those murdering Syrians, directly or by proxy, refuse to come to the table. Their successive, patient efforts seem to be paying off slowly.

When he founded The Elders, Madiba simply told us to “be bold” and speak truth to power. It meant that we could meet with whomever we please, provided we had an important message to give about the welfare of the weak. Since 2007 we have explored possibilities, in effect “learning to Elder”. The Syria crisis has been one of the clearest pointers that “ethical leadership” is where the Elders can focus their efforts.

To talk about ethical leadership is to speak from experience, not because you were a perfect leader but because you were thrust into difficult situations – stirring hatred or calling for cool heads, igniting a war or enshrining peace, reaching out to the poor or assuming they will perish – and maybe you helped to see humanity prevail.

It is about preaching some universal principles… to always warn against the resolutely devastating effect of war. To remember what it feels like to be persecuted or voiceless. To uphold the dignity of the victim, but also show sympathy for the challenges of leadership, as a collective of people who have been freed from the constraints of office.

It is also about using your experience to foresee signs of catastrophe ahead. To warn of the lasting ferment of persecution when, in Myanmar, Muslims like the Rohingya are being persecuted. To be outraged when some African states turn their back on the International Criminal Court and consign victims to the abyss. To support with all our heart the prospect of two states for Israelis and Palestinians. To stand with the half-share of our human family, the mothers, sisters and daughters, who still play second fiddle in the hallways of power. To urge action at the top of our lungs as cataclysmic and man-made climate change looms.

People like the Elders are here to remind you that wars can be ended. Technology has brought us closer together, yet our world is still rife with misery. We can communicate instantly with Aleppo during a night of shelling. We need leaders moved by those crying for help and the thought of their hearts beating amid the rubble.

l Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, is an Honorary Member of The Elders, a group of independent leaders working for peace, justice and human rights worldwide. He will take part, with his fellow Elders, in a discussion on ethical leadership which will be broadcast on Al Jazeera English on Friday, November 1 at 9.30pm.