Saturday, 7 August 2010

When the Hague met the catwalk

It was a brief appearance that made headlines for days. Naomi Campbell giving evidence at the War Crimes Tribunal of Liberia's brutal formal dictator Charles Taylor had everyone talking. But what did the whole incident tell us?

Firstly, and probably least importantly, it highlighted Campbell’s utter self-obsession and complete detachment from the real world. Branding the Tribunal “a big inconvenience for me” showed her complete disregard for the tens of thousands of people whose lives were torn apart by Taylor and her frankly weak grasp of what the whole case actually means. Similarly, by stating that she was reluctant to testify because of fears over her safety, she showed her total lack of understanding about how such things work. Adept as he was at brutalising his own people and his neighbours whilst in power, it was highly unlikely that the ex-dictator would ever have a British supermodel harmed or that he would now even have the capacity to do so.

More significant than Campbell’s lack or morals or intelligence however, is the astronomical difference between the level of media coverage that the Tribunal has received over the last week, compared to the rest of the time since it began three years ago. The Tribunal is of absolutely fundamental importance not only because it can bring to justice the man responsible for one of Africa’s worst ever conflicts (and some of the most brutal human rights abuses committed in recent times), but because if Taylor is found guilty he will become the first ever former state leader convicted by an international court for crimes committed whilst in power. The Tribunal of Slobodan Milosevic –an equally barbaric war criminal – so nearly set this precedent, but he escaped justice by dying shortly before its conclusion. Should Taylor ‘go down’ for his part in Sierra Leone’s civil war, the political implications will be enormous. A message will go out to every abusive leader from Zimbabwe to China to Indonesia that, though they may enjoy immunity whilst in power, they can be held accountable for their atrocities at some point in the future. Never before has such a situation existed (the Nuremberg trials perhaps came closest to achieving this but were obviously absent of the main perpetrator); yet the British press gave appallingly little coverage to this historic Tribunal until a glamorous supermodel entered the scene.

This poor reflection on our media, and perhaps by implication our society, was compounded by a somewhat ludicrous amount of coverage on what Campbell was wearing. The Evening Standard even went as far as publishing the comments of a jewellery expert on her choice of necklace. The irony (considering that her testimony revolved around the receipt of conflict diamonds) seemed lost on the editors. Still, some small positive can of perhaps be drawn from the fact that people previously oblivious to events unfolding in the Hague are now aware of Taylor, Sierra Leone, Liberia and conflict diamonds- even if it is only because of Campbell’s involvement.

Finally, and most importantly, we should pay attention to what Campbell’s testimony actually meant in terms of the prosecution’s case –an issue that seems to have been overshadowed in the press by the very fact of her presence in court. Unfortunately this does not bode particularly well for the conviction of Taylor (or, consequently, for international justice).

The case rests on the basis that Taylor funded the Revolutionary United Front – a barbaric group of rebels who terrorised Sierra Leone throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s –in return for conflict diamonds [I would highly recommend the film Blood Diamond which, though dramatised, accurately portrays the RUF’s level of brutality]. However, proving that he ever received such diamonds in understandably difficult. A dictator has staff, soldiers, offshore bank accounts and vast intelligence agencies to handle his ill-gotten wealth. Unlike a common criminal he never needs to physically handle it.

In fact, only two accounts of Taylor personally possessing conflict diamonds exist –one of them being that relating to diamonds given to Campbell at the now infamous dinner party hosted by Nelson Mandela in 1997. However, whilst it was hoped that the model’s testimony would provide a solid link between the dictator and the diamonds, she instead spoke of unknown men handing her the stones without mentioning whose behalf they were acting upon. Although the diamonds almost undoubtedly came from Taylor there is, therefore, no actual proof, leading the defence lawyer to gleefully declare “The prosecution has scored an own goal.... Naomi Campbell has blown up spectacularly in their faces.”

Ultimately then, Campbell’s appearance emphasised her own idiocy, highlighted the relative journalistic bankruptcy of the British press and caused a degree of damage to this fundamentally important case.

All we can hope for now is that the prosecution can move on, utilise other key evidence of Taylor’s atrocities and put him were he belongs: behind bars for the rest of his life.

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