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Why foreign policy and Hollywood star power don’t always mix

February 9, 2014 4:15pm
WASHINGTON - Feted actress Scarlett Johansson is denounced as the "poster girl of Israeli apartheid," Dennis Rodman enters rehab after leaving North Korea, Kim Kardashian is the butt of jokes for tweeting her love of Bahrain.

When celebrities wander into complex foreign policy issues, it can be a minefield, leaving diplomats and human rights campaigners scrambling for damage control.

To be fair, many stars such as Bob Geldof, Bono, George Clooney or Angelina Jolie have used their fame—and often their personal fortune—to successfully highlight atrocities or abuses flying under the radar.

"Those guys have really got in root and branch and understand the issues in a way that is equal to or better than many human rights or humanitarian professionals," said Brian Dooley, a director at the advocacy organization Human Rights First.

"They can hold an astute conversation and lobby very effectively and more effectively than NGOs can in certain contexts."

But the problem comes when some stars, perhaps naively, accept big-paying engagements that can be used to shine a more favorable light on controversial companies or oppressive regimes.

With star power comes a great deal of responsibility and we hold our idols to a higher standard than most other people, said Dooley.

"I do feel a bit sorry for them. If you're a celebrity and you want to use the power of your brand for a good cause, it's a minefield," he told AFP.

"So those that do it and do it properly really ought to be applauded rather than sneered at."

But it's all too easy for things to go wrong.

Hence the kerfuffle around Johansson, who quit Oxfam last month after a dispute over her Super Bowl ad campaign for a firm operating in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Former basketball star Rodman has also been in hot water for his links to repressive North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, who he calls "my friend."

To the chagrin of the State Department, actively working to try to secure the release of a devout Korean American Christian jailed in the reclusive country, Rodman made comments suggesting Kenneth Bae's guilt, which he later retracted.

In 2012, TV reality star Kardashian was heavily criticized for tweeting about her visit to Bahrain.

"Everyone from the States has to come and visit," she urged, apparently oblivious to a brutal opposition crackdown by the ruling monarchy.

Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson said: "I can understand how for the people in the State Department, this stuff drives them crazy.

"They've got policy, they got to control a whole bunch of different things in a very complex world," he added.

Accepting gigs in faraway places with exotic names should already sound a warning bell for celebrities to do their homework.

Last year, pop diva Jennifer Lopez was left red-faced after singing happy birthday to Turkmenistan's hardline leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov at a concert in the isolated nation.

She would have abstained if she had known of "human right issues of any kind," a spokeswoman said at the time.

"The Kardashians and Paris Hilton make a very, very handsome fortune pretending to be dumb. I have never for a minute believed that they are," said Thompson.

To go to such countries "is a complex enough logistical event, that I find it hard to believe that somewhere along the line, someone didn't hear that there may be some problems," he added.

Kardashian had in fact turned down an offer from Human Rights First and other organizations to brief her on the situation in Bahrain, possibly because some stars "immediately worry about brand reputation or the specter of a boycott," said Dooley.

But he insisted the conversation these days is "more nuanced" and advised that stars be guided by local activists on the ground—much as in the days when rock music became a tool to crack open the Iron Curtain. — AFP



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