The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York may be the world’s foremost congregation of diplomats and political leaders, but this year’s gathering saw teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg demonstrate how private citizens can impact global debates on development, conflict, and climate in ways that elected officials cannot.
None of this is news to the UN, which counts on a small army of celebrity “goodwill ambassadors” from the fields of film, music, and sport to draw attention to a variety of global issues. American entertainer Danny Kaye became the first Goodwill Ambasador for UNICEF back in 1954. Over 400 such “ambassadors” now work at the international, regional, and national levels. With their ability to reach a global public, stars such as Angelina Jolie and George Clooney drive media coverage and global awareness of issues ranging from HIV/AIDS to humanitarian crises.
Angelina Jolie, for example, first served as a goodwill ambassador for eleven years before becoming a full-fledged United Nations diplomat. A UN special envoy since 2012, she has travelled to the most pressing conflict zones, meeting with and advocating for refugees displaced by crises in Myanmar, Venezuela, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
George Clooney has become a leading global advocate for human rights in Sudan and South Sudan, leveraging his fame to call attention to the crimes of former dictator Omar el-Bashir and target state corruption in both countries. As early as 2006, Clooney’s advocacy focused international attention on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, even if his impact on the ground was harder to measure.
Ambassadors or distractions?
Jolie and Clooney are outliers in their levels of commitment to their chosen causes. Not all goodwill ambassadors approach their honorary positions with the same level of attention to detail, as when World Food Programme ambassador Christina Aguilera infamously described Rwanda as “war-torn” nearly 20 years after the civil war had ended there.
The practice of celebrity advocacy is a mixed bag, and opinions among international development professionals vary. While celebrity ambassadors can raise the profile of the UN and its work, they can also confuse or mislead the public regarding the issues they work on. As Ilan Kapoor argued in 2012, celebrity star power can “only further divert public attention away from the real social and economic causes of inequality.” In the most serious cases, these famous spokespeople have even risked undermining the United Nations’ core peacebuilding mission.
Amber Heard: unwitting lobbyist?
In parallel with this year’s UNGA, American actress and UN “Human Rights Champion” Amber Heard signed up to join Cherie Blair (attorney and the wife of the former British PM) and Neil Bush (son of George H.W. Bush and brother of George W. Bush) to campaign on behalf of the “unfairly jailed” Russian businesswoman Marsha Lazareva, who has been charged with embezzlement by Kuwaiti prosecutors.
In reality, Blair, Bush, and a number of prominent political figures are working on behalf of KGL Investment (KGLI), which is currently waging a public relations and lobbying campaign against Kuwait (a UN member state). Lazareva and co-defendant Saeed Dashti, both executives at KGLI, stand accused of funnelling millions of dollars of investor funds into private accounts between 2007 and 2015.
KGLI, which was spun off from the controversial Kuwait & Gulf Link (KGL) logistics conglomerate, has since spent millions of dollars engaging officials in Washington to help Marsha Lazareva and Dashti beat the rap. The campaign has even sought US government sanctions against Kuwaiti officials under the terms of the Global Magnistky Act, relying on the prominent advocates they have engaged to portray Lazareva’s case as a human rights issue.
As reported by the Washington Post in a major exposé earlier this month, claims Lazareva faces a “show trial” are part of a broader struggle over American military contracts, one of which KGL was recently stripped of by US courts. With accusations of financial misconduct coming on top of allegations KGL violated US sanctions against Iran and illegally occupied port facilities in Kuwait, KGL and KGLI are seemingly trying to stem the reputational and legal damage.
It is quite possible Heard did not look closely at the context of the event, but the case appears to be more of a corruption scandal than a human rights issue. By signing up to the campaign, has Heard positioned herself, and by extension the United Nations, against one of its own members?
Priyanka Chopra: misstep with major consequences
Another recent case is even more clear-cut, and more problematic. India’s Priyanka Chopra, a UN goodwill ambassador since 2016, has faced calls to be stripped of the honour after she sent a tweet in support of Indian military airstrikes on Pakistan this past February, with Pakistan’s human rights minister wring to UNICEF demanding she be “immediately denotified” from the role.
Chopra’s tweet had already prompted a firestorm of controversy in February, but in the context of India’s systematic human rights violations in Kashmir, which include allegations of mass arbitrary arrests and communications blackouts, the aggressively nationalistic tone of the tweet took on new meaning. Chopra responded to a Pakistani-American critic who directly accused Chopra of “encouraging nuclear war” by saying she was merely “patriotic” and walking a “middle ground,” but can the actress objectively claim she is a legitimate ambassador for peace? Like Heard, has Chopra called into question the UN’s objectivity by endorsing hostility against a member state?
The more celebrity ambassadors the UN works with, the likelier it becomes that at least some will prove detrimental to the organization’s mission through their words or actions. Ultimately, the UN needs to weigh up the best examples of the position at work against the dangers of getting it wrong, perhaps combining a more selective process with increased training and oversight of activities that could impact their work as UN representatives.
Given the fraught nature of international diplomacy, the impartiality of the global body most responsible for facilitating international cooperation must be beyond reproach.
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