Naomi Campbell, Nelson Mandela and War Criminals

This week, the British supermodel finally took to the stand to testify about Charles Taylor. Her testimony revealed some ugly truths. And it's not just about the blood diamonds.

Naomi Campbell’s testimony at the Special Court for Sierra Leone was the culmination of a decade-long exercise in vulgarity. How the British supermodel ended up in the trial of Charles Taylor, a warlord accused of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, troubles me for a plethora of reasons.

This is not about demonizing a supermodel. Despite the maid beating and the driver hitting and the luggage tantrums, there are a lot of things I really like about Naomi Campbell. It’s not just that she was the first African-Caribbean woman to make the cover of French Vogue, but also that she’s been one of the few models to speak out about racism in the industry. Her humanitarian work with survivors of tragedy has gone well beyond the usual celebrity hype.

In February, Campbell staged a catwalk show during London Fashion Week to support the victims of the Haiti earthquake. She’s campaigned to combat AIDS and supported the people displaced from Hurricane Katrina. She has raised money to tackle global poverty and started clothing lines to support children in Brazil. I met her once briefly at a fashion shoot in New York and found her to be (believe it or not) both vulnerable and charming.

I’ve never met Charles Taylor, but I’ve been told that he, too, is quite charismatic. Despots are often amiable, even compelling — it is a useful tool when convincing others to commit atrocity. The difference is that as president of Liberia between 1994 and 2003, Taylor is alleged to have taken diamonds in exchange for arming the rebel Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and in so doing fomenting and prolonging Sierra Leone’s bloody 11-year civil war. Taylor is accused of assisting the RUF in the recruitment of child soldiers, encouraging them — among other things — to hack off the arms of civilian prisoners. Some 200,000 men, women and children were killed in the conflict.

The supermodel and the despot came together the way celebrities and tyrants always seem to do: at a party. Prosecutors allege that Taylor attended a charity dinner at the home of Nelson Mandela (Campbell’s godfather), where other guests included Mia Farrow, actor Tony Leung, Campbell and others. Two witnesses say that later in the evening, men identifying themselves as Taylor’s representatives knocked on Campbell’s door and gave her “a large, rough-cut diamond that [Taylor] had obtained from the RUF/AFRC forces in Sierra Leone.”

What was a low-life like Taylor doing at the home of a man as noble as Mandela? Taylor had recently won an election in Liberia on the campaign slogan, “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.” Perhaps Mandela wanted to congratulate him or provide advice on the fundamentals of leadership. It is difficult to say, and who is anyone to question Mandela’s judgment — though his future wife, Graça Machel, was said to have disapproved of the invitation. Certainly the presence of the two men in the same room was a study in moral contrast.

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