Hollywood has tried several times to draw the world’s attention to African genocide. But even Leonardo di Caprio would find it hard to replicate the drama and deception on display in court in The Hague where former Liberian president Charles Taylor stands trial on war crimes charges. It may be all smoke-and-mirrors, but what a boon it’s been for 24-hour television news.
Taylor is accused of responsibility for some of the most heinous crimes against humanity since 1945. He, of course, has denied any responsibility for the atrocities in Sierra Leone.
Speaking about evidence that he had a pregnant woman buried alive, Taylor said: “It is not true. But you know, there is something deeper to this whole thing ... this is racist, it is as racist as it ever gets,” accusing the US and Britain of an imperialist plot to oust “one little leader from a small country”.
Whatever the truth is, the accounts of rape, torture and murder recounted at the International War Crimes Tribunal since 2007 about events in Sierra Leone and Liberia have been completely overshadowed by the recent arrival of the fiery Campbell, her former agent Carole White, and the forgetful actress-cum-campaigner, Farrow.
The three were called to support the principal allegation that the atrocities were linked to Taylor’s arms-for-diamonds backing of an insurgency in Sierra Leone. Campbell, White and Farrow have been called to The Hague to give their versions of events on that fateful night when Taylor allegedly had a diamond or diamonds, depending on who you believe, delivered to Campbell’s room.
Watching the proceedings of this trial, one might have been forgiven for thinking it has become the set of a poorly cast movie. Whether Taylor is relieved or piqued is not clear, but he must know no amount of rape and pillage would have excited more than a frisson of attention from the world’s press if it had not been for Campbell and Farrow. Who knows where Liberia is?
The question the media wanted answered was, would Campbell start throwing her mobile phone — diamond-encrusted or otherwise — at the judges?
This is not a story about war crimes; it’s a media feeding frenzy about celebrities. When Campbell gave her evidence, the number of journalists covering the trial jumped tenfold. But has she served her purpose? Now everybody knows Taylor has been brought to trial for killing, torturing and maiming hundreds of thousands of his fellow Africans. But has the prosecution’s oh-so-clever ruse backfired?
Certainly, Campbell did not help herself by stating that her appearance before the court was a “big inconvenience” and that she did not even know there was a country called Liberia at the time of the events, let alone where it was.
She testified that, following a charity dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela at which then-president Taylor was in attendance — and with whom, according to White, the supermodel allegedly flirted — she received a small package delivered to her door by persons unknown. Opening it the next morning, she was disappointed to find a bunch of dirty little ‘pebbles’. White, Campbell’s one-time bosom friend and now deadly enemy, claims Campbell knew exactly what the stones were, and who they came from — Charles Taylor.
One thing for sure is that the media won’t let Campbell forget her cameo performance in a hurry. According to the Sun, an opinion poll showed that a grand total of 3% of viewers believed what the model told the court.
In the midst of this farce, Farrow has sought to portray herself as a slightly disconnected but well-intentioned witness with no agenda other than justice for the poor people of Africa. Previously, she was perhaps most famous for her sensational child custody battle with Woody Allen.
According to Farrow’s testimony, Campbell expressed great excitement at being given a “huge diamond” by Taylor (as if a star of Campbell’s stature could be bought for one bloody diamond, you’re thinking, I know). This obviously contradicts Campbell’s evidence that it was Farrow who told her that these “pebbles” were diamonds and that they were probably a gift from Taylor.
One of the stranger things about the media coverage of this case is the way Farrow is treated as a serious witness worth listening to, even though she appeared to buckle under cross-examination, forgetting her son’s age and, worse, thinking that Imran Khan — then husband of Jemima — played soccer, not cricket. Some have suggested that behind Farrow’s soft-spoken demeanour lies a contemptible impulse to use other people’s conflicts to bring some spiritual purpose to her own life.
Still, somebody has been lying and Farrow has no obvious motive for doing so.
But, frankly, who knows whom to believe and, in a sense, who cares? Whoever is lying, and for whatever reason, this melodrama has served to mask an important point. The purpose of Campbell’s testimony was to prove that Taylor was in South Africa at the time selling blood diamonds to purchase weapons. If the testimony of these star witnesses is the prosecution’s best evidence linking Taylor to these events, then its case is in a sorry shape.
The transformation of The Hague into a gossip chamber, complete with quotes from the Oprah Winfrey Show, was an act of extraordinary cynicism. It was a transparently desperate attempt by The Hague to drum up some international interest in its trial.
BUT in some ways, we should be thankful it happened — for it has shone a light on what really drives the cult of celebrity today. We are frequently told the reason celebs are taking over the world is because the little people desperately need their daily fix of gossip. Yet, in truth, it is the authorities who have turned them into creatures of politics and history.
Leaders feeling that they lack legitimacy and a connection with the public increasingly turn to celebs in the hope that some of their credibility will rub off. And now we have the extraordinary situation where a war crimes tribunal also has to call in celebs in order to create a bit of public interest.
The Hague justified the supermodel’s appearance on the basis that if it could be proven that in 1997 Taylor really did give her diamonds then we will finally know he is evil because he got them in return for his arming of rebel groups in Sierra Leone, and that this Liberian lunatic was therefore clearly up to his knees in the blood of Sierra Leoneans.
But it was all too patently forced PR designed to advertise via the media a western institution’s seriousness about tackling genocide. Its effect has been far from serving justice. The mini-drama manufactured by the prosecution has damaged the trial. It has exposed the sometimes foolishness and ignorance of the rich and famous and provided a depressing contrast between celebrity life and the lives of those directly affected by the mining and sale of blood diamonds. The only beneficiaries have been the gossip magazines — and one Charles Taylor.