Jimmy Carter’s human rights message resonates in Atlanta and globally

During a meeting with international activists, the former U.S. president expressed his thoughts about the future of the Carter Center––and democracy itself.

Jimmy Carter Human Rights Defenders Forum
Jimmy Carter speaks at the Human Rights Defenders Forum at the Carter Center.

Photograph by Michael Schwarz/The Carter Center

On July 24, inside the Carter Center’s Cecil B. Day chapel overlooking Freedom Parkway and the downtown skyline, Jimmy Carter’s earnest roundtable discussions with around 70 human rights defenders and religious leaders from 36 countries countered the divisive tone of Tuesday’s local election headlines. Carter spent the better portion of seven hours advocating repeatedly for the “equal treatment of all people” regardless of nationality, race, religion, or gender. The former U.S. president and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, hosted the “Restoring Faith in Freedom” event as part of an annual three-day human rights forum at the Carter Center.

This year’s forum emphasized Carter’s desire for a return to the directives of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a call for new strategies to stem rising global tides of authoritarianism and economic disparities. Notable speakers included the Carter Center’s leadership (the all-female trio of CEO Mary Ann Peters, human rights program director Laura Olson, and longtime Carter human rights adviser Karin Ryan), along with Auburn Seminary officer Traci Blackmon, Radhika Balakrishnan of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour. Carter, appearing cheerful but reflective, said the topics addressed in the forum help establish future priorities for the Carter Center, from which the 93-year-old said he and Rosalynn Carter, 90, will be “transitioning away from leadership soon, due to our ages.”

During the event, Carter often waxed philosophical about problem-solving using themes from his 2018 book, Faith, in which he wrote about the importance of clinging to hope in the midst of turmoil. “For the first time in my lifetime, we’ve lost hope in the future,” Carter told the private audience. “We’ve lost faith in some things that we always took for granted: Faith in each other, faith in the truth, faith not only in religions but in societal relationships . . . we need to go back to those principles.”

Musician Peter Gabriel, co-founder of global leadership group the Elders, appeared via prerecorded video to concur with Carter’s sentiments. Kicking off two of the forum’s sessions in which he recalled his decades of human rights work and tours with Amnesty International, the singer expressed disappointment with today’s lack of trust in elections and institutions and chided recent handling of immigrants and refugees as “flotsam and jetsam.” He also lauded Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter as the “father and mother” of a “global human rights family,” calling the pair “lights in a dark world.” Carter followed Gabriel’s introduction with a quip about his reputation as the first “rock-and-roll president” before returning to his serious concerns about current geopolitics he described as “a turning point in the history of the world.”

Jimmy Carter Human Rights Defenders Forum
A group photo from the Carter Center’s Human Rights Defenders Forum

Photograph by Michael Schwarz/The Carter Center

A recent GQ magazine profile labeled Jimmy Carter a “Yoda-like” purveyor of knowledge and hope, but as the normally fiery statesman took notes and listened to statements of gratitude and pleas for help from forum participants representing Vietnam, Nigeria, the Maldives, Guatemala, and others, he gently reminded the audience that the Carter Center has no official governmental authority, only influence and the successful track record of its programming such as monitoring elections, eradicating diseases like Guinea Worm, and bolstering women’s rights—all of which he hopes will continue to make a difference around the world. “I’m not an oracle, and I don’t have all the answers,” the Nobel Peace Laureate exclaimed with a wide smile at end of the question-and-answer period before issuing a parting call-to-action: “In every level of our life experiences, if we will just treat God’s people equally, collectively we can change the world for the better.”