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.
Later she decided to give the stones to a Jeremy Ratcliffe, director of Mandela's children's charity. According to Campbell, Ratcliffe did not seem troubled at the prospect of receiving the uncut diamonds.
What nauseates me about the entire affair — beyond Campbell's lack of judgment — is that a man like Taylor had the kind of access and power to make an after-hours gift stained with death to a celebrity like Campbell. Even more sickening is the fact that this liaison could take place after a charity dinner hosted by Mandela himself.
And why, in any event, did Campbell resist providing testimony to the court for so long? Since May, prosecutors have been attempting to get her on the witness stand. Until recently, Campbell had refused their requests. In the end, her testimony appeared wildly incongruent. In contrast to the testimony of two witnesses, Campbell said the subject of diamonds never came up at the party. That when two men knocked on the door and gave Campbell a pouch with "dirty-looking stones," she was not certain if they came from Taylor.
But this episode goes beyond the events of a single evening. It is an example of how despots and murderers of African children need third parties to make their death trade in diamonds profitable — people to move them, to appraise them, to store them in bank vaults and, ultimately, to buy them. It takes friends in high places to get the protection you need to keep the game going. And Campbell and Mandela weren't the only people Taylor had access to.
Taylor unfortunately had plenty of that. Testifying in his own trial, Taylor said that evangelist Pat Robertson was awarded a Liberian gold-mining exploration concession in 1999 and later offered to lobby the White House to support Taylor's regime. And when the Bush administration asked Taylor to step aside, Robertson defended the man who approved the gold deal. "It's one thing to say, we will give you money if you step down and we will give you troops if you step down, but just to order him to step down? He doesn't work for us," Robertson said. "So we're undermining a Christian, Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels to take over the country," he added.
The ease with which Taylor, a vulgar criminal with a bloodthirsty history, could move in all the right circles is something of which Naomi Campbell has absolute knowledge. If Taylor did indeed offer her blood diamonds, her words could seal Taylor's fate. It's good that she came forward with the truth. And it's shameful that it took her so long to say so little. It's even more shameful that we live in a world in which our worst elements have access to the highest levels of power and celebrity.
Greg Beals is The Root's Middle East correspondent. You can contact him here.