In March, a glowing Amal Clooney appeared before the United Nations Security Council to implore members to collect evidence on the crimes committed by ISIL. Next to her was a Yazidi woman named Nadia Murad, who has suffered and survived the unspeakable and brutal atrocities on which Mrs Clooney was urging action. Sitting side by side at the event and at the many interviews that came after, the two women presented a contrast: a wan and black-clad Ms Murad, next to a perfectly coiffed and resplendent Mrs Clooney.
Mrs Clooney’s impassioned speech demanding that the international community and the United Nations prosecute ISIL for war crimes was shown in news all around the world. Many watched and a few listened but no one seemed interested in doing anything more. The speech at the UN, the photo-ops that followed, the CNN interviews that came after, seemed all part and parcel of a sleek and choreographed act, the power of celebrity employed to push the pretence that the United Nations is a forum that matters, where resolutions produce actions and the powerful and cruel can be held to account by the power of law.
None of it is true. In the days and weeks after, Mrs Clooney did a few more appearances to push the issue before retreating into her multimillion dollar refuge. In pictures taken after the media blitz with Ms Murad, she was seen taking a walk with her film-star husband George, their images wrapped up in captions and conjectures about the names of their soon-to-arrive twin children. Ms Murad receded into invisibility, even as new devastation afflicted Syria, now at the hands of Bashar Al Assad.
A lot was said but little will be done.
Mrs Clooney is not, of course, responsible for the ineptitude of the UN, or for its devolution into a bureaucracy where everyone talks, many get paid and little else happens regardless of the urgency of the need or the cruelty of the deed.
Mrs Clooney is, however, an example of how the power of an international institution has been reduced to a platform for celebrity branding, where self-styled advocates can push one or another cause, be flanked by sad survivors and have their celebrity status stamped with pearly altruism and saintliness. Mrs Clooney is a lawyer, but there are many qualified lawyers at the UN. It is her celebrity and not her capability that raises her above the rest.
Many more instances of celebrity worship were quite literally around the corner at the UN.
Even as Mrs Clooney made her speech at the Security Council, the UN was also hosting the women’s summit. There again, celebrities Patricia Arquette and Abby Wambach made speeches about equal pay. Just like Mrs Clooney, Arquette and Wambach were flanked by actual activists, even as the attention stayed squarely on the stars. Nor are these the only instances.
Emma Stone has been feted at the UN as a great champion of women’s rights. Angelina Jolie is an ambassador for refugees. For pretty much every issue at the UN, there is a celebrity face. The cumulative message of all of it is the same: the issues that the stars speak of may be important but without their power, advocacy is ineffectual, even impossible.
There is tremendous danger in this equation and an ugliness that is masked by the beauty of celebrity.
Its essential premise is that the window dressing afforded by celebrity proponents is somehow crucial for advocacy on human rights and feminist issues.
Its consequence has been that forums – where survivors such a Ms Murad should stand alone and receive the attention and consideration that they deserve – are peopled by those for whom the issue is a dash of altruism to their otherwise narcissistic celebrity lives.
At its best, it suggests that the world’s attention is so fickle and feeble that stars have to be used as a lure to attract them.
At its worst it suggests that the moral weight of suffering, the impetus for the world to act through forums such as the United Nations, is dependent on the attentions and interests of a celebrity.
The world can do better. The suffering of the Yazidis under ISIL deserves urgent attention, as do the atrocities committed by the Assad regime against the innocent civilians of Syria.
The United Nations, the forum that the world has entrusted with taking action against human rights abuses, against the very cruelties that are at play in Syria, must not become a red carpet for celebrity poseurs.
With millions mired in conflict, suffering at the hands of extremist villains and heartless dictators, the world must not be diverted by designer-clad distractions and take seriously the impetus for serious and courageous action.
Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan