Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari has sent a letter to UNICEF requesting the removal of Priyanka Chopra as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. On the day of the Balakot air strikes, Chopra had tweeted: “Jai Hind. #IndianArmedForces”. Stating that Chopra supported the Indian government’s position on the crisis in Kashmir, thereby undermining the UN position she holds, Mazari wrote that if she isn’t removed “the very idea of a Goodwill Ambassador for Peace becomes a mockery globally”.
On the UN website, there is an arbitrary line asking those appointed as Messengers of Peace to exercise good judgement and discretion and to refrain from any conduct that would reflect adversely on the United Nations. As a citizen, Chopra has the right to support her country’s military. As an appointed envoy of the UN in a role with the title ‘Goodwill’, anything she says should ideally shun hostility and reflect the principles of peace she was hired to propagate. Chopra’s fairly innocuous tweet is more patriotic than nationalist and she could make the claim it’s personal, being the daughter of two Indian army physicians. Given the serious nature of current tensions, perhaps Chopra should have been more circumspect, since in all likelihood she is no expert on the nuances and consequences of Balakot or Pulwama. On the other hand, are actors wrong to capitalise on their fame to draw attention to their point of view?
Of course not. There is no doubt celebrities like Chopra highlight the big issues for a larger audience, which is precisely why she was chosen by the UN, alongside Hollywood luminaries like Roger Moore and Audrey Hepburn, who have held similar positions in the past. The cynical criticism of actors engaging in humanitarian activities is that they are motivated by self-interest. Indeed, latching onto whatever pressing disaster has grabbed the world’s attention brings welcome publicity and perpetuates their own myth. But is opportunism so very awful if it helps in the greater good? The points on climate change made by actor Leonardo DiCaprio while receiving an Oscar resonate somewhere, because we are all (ostensibly) in this together. Causes may be to celebrities what social responsibility is to corporates — in today’s world every star and organisation needs one. It is also worth noting that celebrities have grown as influencers because the public’s faith in elected politicians is at an all-time low. Suddenly, creative people in show business seem more trustworthy.
It is, however, one thing for a star to lobby about climate change or urge people to use less plastic and water but completely another to speak on the complex dynamics of geopolitics. When people like Prince Harry and Deepika Padukone open up about their struggles with depression, it encourages regular folk to seek help, and at another level, changes attitudes towards mental illness. But when Chopra wears her allegiance for India on her sleeve, it can paradoxically escalate hostility — in the unlikely event that she is striped of this prestigious position of Goodwill Ambassador, it will be hailed as a big victory by the other side. The issue of Kashmir, in its complexity, transcends whatever a UNICEF Ambassador or even what skilled negotiators can do to fix it. At this point, all that a superficial intervention by a star does, is heighten the gap between words and meaningful action.
Over decades, actors testing the waters in international affairs have generated a lot of hype but questionable success. Richard Gere has been vociferous in his support for the Tibetan people but the issue is far from over. Ben Affleck championed a ruling that required countries to disclose their use of conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The ban on illegal mining rendered thousands jobless and increased the violence he had set out to reduce. Ultimately, celebrities and ambassadors performing advocacy roles have an influence as the UN calls them — the unofficial representatives of goodwill — but they are out of their depth when it comes to changing opinions on the world’s most hotly contested territories.