Thursday, January 26, 2006

What do Nicole Kidman and Angelina Jolie do as UN Goodwill Ambassadors?

Today's big news in the narrow category of "celebrities and international law" is that Nicole Kidman has been named a UN goodwill ambassador. The UN Development Fund for Women, to whose work Kidman will be lending her celebrity, issued this press release:

As UNIFEM Goodwill Ambassador, her efforts will be geared toward raising awareness on the infringement of women's human rights around the world. A particular focus will lie on putting a spotlight on violence against women, probably the most pervasive human rights violation that affects as many as one in three women. Nicole Kidman will visit initiatives supported by UNIFEM to increase visibility for the efforts underway to end gender-based violence.

Kidman is already familiar with the work of UN agencies, having served as UNICEF's ambassador to Australia for several years. And she played the role of UN interpreter in last year's aptly named "The Intepreter."

But what exactly is a "goodwill ambassador?" They are not at all ambassadors in the strict sense of the word. No special diplomatic status or accoutrements attend the position. They are there for photo-ops, fundraising appeals, and awareness raising. This can involve serious work in less-than-plush settings. Even among these celebrity ambassadors of goodwill, there is a hierarchy. At the top are the handful of goodwill ambassadors recruited to represent the whole of the UN organization. This BBC article from 2000 explains the history:

The UN first hit on the idea of celebrity ambassadors in the 1950s, when Hollywood and Broadway star Danny Kaye was taken on to promote children's rights. He worked tirelessly throughout that year and subsequent decades. It was his success that led to the use of stars, like Sir Peter Ustinov and Audrey Hepburn, on a regular basis.

The current set of celebrities is led by a top flight of seven, called "Messengers of Peace", of which Michael Douglas is one. Others include boxing legend Muhammad Ali, basketball star Magic Johnson and opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. These are personally recruited by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. They must have a largely unblemished reputation, a proven interest in humanitarian issues and fame on a global scale. The seven are expected to work hard - on a voluntary basis - to help focus attention on the work of the UN in general.

In addition to the "top-level"ambassadorss selected by the SecGen are those recruited to represent a particular UN agency, as with Ms. Kidman (and Angelina Jolie, who has served as a goodwill ambassador for UNHCR), or a project. The UN appoints a lot of them, not all of them household names in this country. But each must have some level of fame andcelebrityy to lend to the program. This list of UNICEF goodwill ambassadors has a few big US and UK celebrity names. But see how many of the celebrities on this list from UNESCO you recognize.

Kidman deserves some credit for lending her name and time to something that the celebrity touch can help publicize. And she has some humility about it: "I don't pretend to be an expert on the issues that UNIFEM addresses. But I'm here to learn and lend support to help make visible the very real and immediate problems and the successful strategies that UNIFEM and the women they support work on everyday."

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