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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Exclusive Interview: President Jimmy Carter

by Joanna Andrews

© Shutterstock: Jimmy Carter at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York
© AP Images: Carter with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza City in 1996
© AP Images: A moment in history: Sadat (L), Carter and Begin (R) in 1979
© Al Habtoor Group: Symbol of peace: Carter's handpainted gift for Al Habtoor
© AP Images: US President-elect with his wife Rosalynn in 1976

President Jimmy Carter recently visited Dubai, accompanied by his wife, en route to a Carter Center mission in the troubled Sudan. The former President of the United States spoke exclusively to Joanna Andrews about what concerns him most about the world today.

Jimmy Carter was the 39th President of the United States of America. He served from 1977 to 1981. In those four years he achieved significant accomplishments on foreign policy including the Panama Canal treaties, the SALT II treaty with the former Soviet Union, the Camp David Accords, the treaty between Egypt and Israel - not to mention his many other domestic accomplishments.

“When I was elected President, Egypt and Israel had been at war four times in the previous 25 years and I was determined to bring peace to the Holy Land,” he reminisces. “I knew that none of my subordinates could do it; the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State. It had to be the full personal influence of the President of the United States, so I decided to get the top leaders of Egypt and Israel together with me.“

On September 17, 1978 after 13 days of ‘secret’ negotiations, President Carter brokered the Camp David Accord which was signed by the then President of Egypt Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. A second framework, one year later, led to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

“We invited the Palestinians, we invited the Jordanians, but they were under tremendous pressure from the Arab countries, so they couldn’t come. But, Sadat was courageous enough to do so,” he adds.

The former President attributes the success to the two very courageous leaders. “I used the full influence of my own Presidential Office and the power of the United States to propose solutions that neither Egypt or Israel liked but they didn’t want to displease me, and they didn’t want to be exposed to the world as being the obstacle to peace,” he says.

At the time there was criticism from some quarters of society over the lack of a Palestinian presence. Carter says the former Palestinian President later expressed regret for not attending. “Yasser Arafat came and told me that one of the worst mistakes he made was not coming to Camp David.”

The agreement eventually resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize for Carter ‘for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development’.

He says winning a Nobel Peace Prize reinforced his belief in what he was doing. “What that did was to recognise the work that the Carter Center has done since I left the White House.”

A Champion for Peace
Today, Jimmy Carter is known throughout the world as a champion for human rights. In 1982, less than a year after he left office, he set up The Carter Center along with his wife Rosalynn. The non-government, non-profit organisation works in partnership with Emory University to advance human rights, alleviate human suffering, prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health. I asked the former president why he and his wife devote so much of their time to improve the state of the world in some of the most dangerous regions.

“Rosalynn and I find our work at The Carter Center primarily to be very gratifying and unpredictable and adventurous, it adds excitement to our lives,” he says.

“We grew up in a community that everybody helped each other,” he adds. “I got very well acquainted, when I was a child, with the African-American community. All my neighbours were black people and so I was immersed with them as a child and through my teenage years.

“When I got into politics as a state Senator, later as a Governor, and then as President I could see the need of people around the world, and how much of a disparity there was,” he says. “So, after I left the White House we formed the Carter Center. We now have programmes in 73 countries… about half of those are in Africa where the need is greatest. We have learned that they are just as hard working, just as dedicated, just as ambitious, and their family values are just as good as ours; they just need a chance in life,” he says.

Saving Sudan In March last year The Carter Center launched a series of dialogues between prominent leaders from Sudan and South Sudan, aimed at strengthening peace and creating lasting understanding between the two countries. The Carter’s spent several days in Sudan in January 2014 to give a further push to peace efforts in the war-torn country.

“We have been going to Sudan pretty regularly, ever since 1988, and we’ve tried to bring peace first of all when North and South were at war,” he says. “We were involved deeply in the elections in North and South Sudan, and then with the referendum in South Sudan, and we helped to form the new government, a new nation in South Sudan, the newest one in the world.”

While in Khartoum he put pressure on President Omer Hassan Al-Bashir - who he has known since before Al-Bashir took office - to promote harmony and peace in the troubled parts of the country. President Carter says they put forward a proposal “to help with the reconciliation in Sudan, the writing of a new constitution, and the future holding of an honest election.”

A Solution for Syria?
Carter is active in many parts of the world, including Syria. And, he is not shy to have his voice heard. He recently co-wrote an ‘op-ed’ in the Washington Post, under the headline - Time to be bold and make peace in Syria.

‘During the past 2½ years, 100,000 more Syrians have died, more than 2 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees and 6 million Syrians have been internally displaced,’ he writes. ‘The war among Syria’s many sectarian groups has become more brutal, and some neighboring countries are even more deeply involved in trying to help one side or the other prevail. It is time to ask why the calls for peace have been fruitless.’

He praises the efforts by the United Nations, ‘The United Nations has been fortunate to have two brilliant special envoys dealing with Syria - Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi - but they have not been permitted to use their negotiating skills because the principal actors insist on preconditions of victory rather than mutual accommodation essential to bringing the war to an end. These preconditions aim to win an unwinnable war rather than to forge an imperfect peace, and in the process they deny the Syrian people their sovereign right to choose.’

So what is the solution to the destruction in Syria, I ask? “I think that in order to solve a problem as complicated as Syria, the solution is to get top leaders to sit down with all the factions that can have a role in bringing about an agreement and let them all participate. If you exclude key parties and also try to ordain in advance what they have to agree to accept that is preconditions, then that almost guarantees that you are going to fail.” He pauses and then says, “I would personally like to see Iran participate.”

Misinterpreting the Facts
The 86-year-old former president is not one to sit idle. To date, he was written 28 books on everything from international affairs, current affairs, theology and even fiction. His latest book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power, due out on March 25, is an account on the worldwide abuse of women and girls. He says that in spite of the all the work he does all over the world, his biggest concern right now “is the abuse and deprivation of equal rights of women and girls.”

He adds, “This is based on two major factors that are very difficult and very important; one is the misinterpretation of the Holy Scriptures; in the Koran and the Bible… And, the other one is a general turning of the international community towards violence, away from what we hoped to achieve when the United Nations was formed and all the countries agreed not to start wars on their own but to go through United Nations to resolve differences. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is basically being ignored in dealing with women and girls and secondly the countries are too willing to go to war on their own.”

Carter says that unfortunately people across all faiths tend to misinterpret the scriptures to the detriment of women. “What happens is the Christian and Islamic leaders, just to take two religions, who are all men, they interpret the Koran and they interpret the Holy Bible to make sure that they pick out verses that lead them to believe women should be excluded from an equal participation.

“My Church has a female pastor, but in some of the Baptist Churches they don’t permit female pastors, they don’t even permit a woman to teach boys in a classroom and of course the Catholic Church says that a woman can’t be a priest or a deacon, well I think that those are mistakes. But, that’s the interpretation of men leaders who chose verses in the Holy Scriptures that perpetuate them and don’t have women challenge them for the top positions.”

Me Time
Away from the glare of politics, and public life, President Carter is a Distinguished Professor at Emory Univeristy in Atlanta, Georgia, just a short journey from where he was born. In his ‘spare’ time he keeps busy doing multiple creative tasks. “When I am writing a book and I have a few days at home I get tired of the computer, I go 20 steps to my woodshop, I build furniture, and I paint pictures. I am a fairly good artist. My wife and I are bird watchers and we spend a lot time with our family so we have a very diverse life and we’ve been blessed with good health, so until we are constricted mentally or physically I hope my enjoyment will come from just having a life that is adventurous and unpredictable and gratifying.”

Worthy Winners
So, who would he like to win a Nobel Peace Prize today? “I prefer not to name individuals but I would say those who have taken a courageous stand to promote peace in spite of very difficult challenges, people like Ladkhar Brahimi now who is negotiated a peace in Syria. I think John Kerry has taken an initiative that was lacking in my country in trying to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians but if they prove to be successful in their effort then I would like to see them recognised.”

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