Star power and human rights: a difficult but doable mix

February 10, 2014

RED-FACED. Jennifer Lopez performing for the leader of 'one of the world's most repressive regimes,' according to Human Rights Watch. Photo by Agence France-Presse/Igor Sasin

 (Jennifer Lopez performing for the leader Turkmenistan. (c) Agence France-Presse/Igor Sasin)

In quite a few earlier posts in this blog I have drawn attention to stars and celebrities who either support dictators or simply do not care that their actions do. So, I was quite happy to see a thoughtful piece by Jo Biddle of Agence France-Presse on 9 February 2014 analyzing this issue a bit more in-depth, with actress Scarlett Johansson as the “poster girl of Israeli apartheid”, Dennis Rodman in North Korea, and Kim Kardashian expressing her love of Bahrain. I would add, Mariah Carey who thinks nothing of singing for Gaddafi or the Angolan President, while Jennifer Lopez (picture above) did the same in Turkmenistan.

The author rightly states that when celebrities wander into complex foreign policy issues, it can be a minefield, leaving diplomats and human rights campaigners scrambling for damage control. The article mentions exceptions such as Bob Geldof, Bono, George Clooney or Angelina Jolie who have used their fame – and often their personal fortune – to highlight human rights violations. One could easily add to these: Barbara Hendricks and Loreen (https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/exceptional-loreen-is-a-eurovision-winner-interested-in-human-rights-defenders/). Sting – with a mishap in Uzbekistan – generally supported human rights (http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63796).

[These stars] can hold an astute conversation and lobby very effectively and more effectively than NGOs can in certain contexts.” Brian Dooley of Human Rights First is quoted as saying. But the problem comes when some stars, perhaps naïvely, 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, Dooley added. Those who try to use their star power for good and do it properly “really ought to be applauded.”

But things can easily go wrong; The article mentions in particular the recent controversy surrounding Scarlett 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 and former basketball star Rodman calling the North Korean leader Kim Jung-un “my friend”, but refusing to intercede for the release of a Korean American, Kenneth Bae. In 2013 Jennifer Lopez’ spokesperson at the time stated should would not have gone to Turkmenistan if she had known of “human right issues of any kind”. Really missing from Jo Biddle’s piece is Mariah Carey’s gaffe with Gaddafi which she, at first, stated would never do again, but then repeated without shame in Angola. (see: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/mariah-carey-needs-better-informed-staff-and-donate-her-1-million-fee-to-human-rights-defenders-in-angola/)

What should the stars do? They (especially their agents) should simply be more careful and investigate a bit more: accepting invitations from places with exotic names should already sound a warning bell for celebrities to do their homework. An example mentioned in the article is TV reality star Kardashian who was heavily criticized for tweeting about her visit to Bahrain in 2012. [“Everyone from the States has to come and visit”]. 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.

Reading this blog is probably insufficient, but typing in “human rights violations” and the name of the country should be doable for well-paid advisers of celebrities.

Why star power and foreign policy dont always mix.

4 Responses to “Star power and human rights: a difficult but doable mix”


  1. […] 18, 2014 Last week I blogged about the mixed record of star power (https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/star-power-and-human-rights-a-difficult-but-doable-mix/) and it is nice to add a positive example: Rihanna. On 16 February 2014 Faith Karimi and Neda […]


  2. […] of this blog know that I like the idea of holding  celebrities accountable (most recently: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/star-power-and-human-rights-a-difficult-but-doable-mix/).   The reason is that there is a mutually reinforcing (and for many profitable) interaction […]


  3. […] It shows that star power can be used for good and I should have listed Penn in: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/star-power-and-human-rights-a-difficult-but-doable-mix/ […]


  4. […] The authors list other stars who gave in to money and ignorance, comparing them to those who use their star power more wisely. See also: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/star-power-and-human-rights-a-difficult-but-doable-mix/ […]


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