Monday, September 22, 2008

Do we need to “go glam” to be on the agenda?

It is fair to suggest that many issue areas that find saliency on the global agenda are associated with a famous face such as Angelina Jolie, Richard Gere and George Clooney. Literature seems to agree that those celebrities provide extensive media coverage to the issue if nothing else (although some authors such as Dieter and Kumar argue that they damage causes more than they contribute to them). However, the issue area of sexual exploitation and abuse in conflict zones illustrates us that firstly, it is not a necessity to have a celebrity figure to find political saliency. Secondly and more importantly, it illustrates us that some issue areas by nature may not be open to celebrity activism.

As a result of my research, I believe it is safe to conclude that there is no strong celebrity presence in this particular issue area. There are many celebrities who are vocal on relevant issue areas such as displaced children (Angelina Jolie – Brad Pitt), human trafficking (Ricky Martin, Emma Thompson) and child exploitation (Charlize Theron). However, I was not able to identify any celebrity who is vocal about sexual exploitation and abuse conducted in conflict zones by UN personnel.

Although the particularities of this issue area make it difficult to reach generalizations, it nonetheless, provides some insights on the role of celebrities. Firstly, although there was no significant celebrity presence, the issue achieved to secure a significant place on the agenda. The short causal chain that was apparent between the violator and the violated as well as the clarity of the harm it causes (as it was suggested in the previous entry) helped the issue to become a politically salient one in a relatively short period of time. Pointing the UN as the violator also contributed to the efforts since the misconducts presented a clear contrast to the norms that the UN tries to promote. The questions that were already raised about the legitimacy of UN missions also urged the UN to take action and assume a central role in dealing with its personnel’s misconducts. Therefore, I believe it can be said that celebrity support is not a “must” for an issue to find a place on the global agenda, especially if other factors (such as short causal chain, explicit bodily harm) are present.

On the flip side of the issue, the lack of celebrity presence in this issue area also illustrates that some issue areas by their nature may not be suitable for celebrity activity. Although it may include some speculation, I would argue that since it was the UN itself that was accused of conducting sexual exploitation and abuse; it was difficult to become vocal on this issue. Most of the celebrities work for or in coordination with the UN or the UN agencies to support their causes. Challenging the UN itself has the possibility to jeopardize their cause since it would challenge UN’s legitimacy and has the risk to antagonize a very-needed partner. Challenging states or other non-state actors is a relatively easy task since it would help you gather other states and/or actors on your side. However, challenging one of the main actors in the system that has the capacity to not only create a norm but also realize policy change proves to be more problematic.

Thus, I believe we can conclude from this case that it is important to answer several questions such as; who is it that you want on your side, who is it that you need to convince (Drezner’s argument), what is the best way to convince potential opponents before deciding whether or not (and eventually which) celebrity should contribute to the cause.

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