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When human trafficking becomes a Cause Celebre

Celebrities no longer just raise money and awareness. They offer advice about how to approach and ‘solve’ the human trafficking problem. The United Nations has multitudes of celebrities representing it as the ‘faces’ of the topic. 

No one is for human trafficking, save the traffickers, recruiters and middlemen who profit from it. But does this mean that everyone with a publicist to please has the requisite experience to take on the complexities of human trafficking, or that we should unquestioningly follow the recommendations and advice of these self-designated anti-trafficking icons?

Until the summer of 2014, when Newsweek led with a cover story implying that Somaly Mam, an anti-trafficking activist, was a fraud, every celebrity human rights activist, government official, NGO representative and member of Congress I met had claimed her as a ‘close friend.’  She was dubbed a ‘hero’ (and awarded money with that title) by everyone from the US Department of State to Glamour magazine. She was lauded by John Kerry, Oprah, the UN Secretary General, and the Pope, among others.  When I asked one US State Department official a few years ago why that agency continued to fund her when legitimate questions were surfacing about whether she was carrying out the work she claimed, the honest, if somewhat disappointing response that I received was “she’s very photogenic.”  The implication was that Somaly Mam was one of a handful of people who put a face on human trafficking activism, and that the benefits that came with ease of recognition outweighed the potential costs of backing the wrong horse.

Newsweek cover May 2014. Fair use.

Celebrities – people known for being known – are increasingly involved in human rights activism. The pop star who sells clothes to fight poverty in Africa, the movie star working on intervention strategies in Darfur, the journalist who specializes in op-ed’s about rescuing girls from their plight: all secure a broader following through work that seems both important and serious.  They are celebrities, but also humanitarians.  A complicit public often respects multi-millionaire stars all the more for putting their celebrity to good use. 

To paraphrase Susan Sarandon, a member of the Somaly Mam Foundation global advisory board, if a celebrity is going to be treated as a commodity she might as well get some air time for her particular activist agenda. And it works. Appearing in public recently, Emma Stone and her boyfriend Andrew Garfield held signs in front of their faces that described the needs of two charities.  If the paparazzi tailing them wanted to publish photos of the two movie stars together, they would also have to show the information about the charities. They did.

But an all-too-real downside of the celebritisation of human rights causes is that questioning the veracity of celebrity claims becomes a perilous business. They are respected and loved by millions, and have funding and political support to back them up, regardless of how beneficial their activism is.  The same has been true with human trafficking. One of the many problems with turning anti-trafficking activists like Somaly Mam into figureheads for a cause (and her celebrity supporters, in a circular fashion, into bona fide anti trafficking ‘experts’ for endorsing her) is that by virtue of their sizable public following, their words and suggestions become sacrosanct. Questioning dubious statistics and dramatic claims about human trafficking requires one to parry wrathful retorts like:  “Are you saying that you are for five-year-old girls being sold into brothels?!”  

No. I’m not.

Celebrities no longer just raise money and awareness. They offer advice about how to approach and ‘solve’ the human trafficking problem. Congress regularly invites celebrity witnesses to testify on human trafficking.  The wife of one Hollywood star, an actress herself, was invited to address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on human trafficking, even though she admitted she had never even heard of the issue until eight months earlier.  A pop star and another Hollywood couple each created anti-trafficking foundations that received sizeable funding from the US government. They were in turn designated ‘heroes’ for using that government funding to put out public service announcements about trafficking.  The United Nations has multitudes of celebrities representing it as the 'faces' of the topic. 

Yes, celebrity activists can raise awareness about the existence of human trafficking. But their often ill-informed characterisations of the problem and its potential solutions lead to unintended consequences, misallocated funds, and misdirected victim services, because the claims they make are backed by data, statistics and assumptions rife with error.  

A multitude of careful and considerate experts on human trafficking have emerged in the past few decades, and scholarship on the topic is showing us that much of what we think we know about human trafficking may be wrong.  But it is the opinions of celebrities and celebrity activists like Somaly Mam and Nicholas Kristof who continue to hold sway.  These individuals receive the lion’s share of attention from the press, from the public and, crucially, from legislators and policy makers.  In September 2014, an article in Marie Claire disputed the Newsweek allegations, suggesting that Mam was not misrepresenting herself or her work.  Regardless of which story holds the most truth, no one person or one aspect of the issue should dominate the direction of policy, funding or programming solutions.

Is it better to do nothing than something?  The answer is not necessarily one or the other. But when the something done is not carefully thought out, or is based merely on the proposals of celebrity activists with something to gain, then it might well be better to do nothing.

Beyond SlaveryThis article is from the Beyond trafficking and slavery editorial partnership, supported by King's College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of the Witwatersrand.

About the author

Dina Haynes is a Professor of Law at New England Law|Boston and has worked on human trafficking internationally and domestically for more than a decade.  Her latest article, the Celebritization of Human Trafficking, can be found in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.


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