Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Naomi Campbell isn't at fault

State villainy carries on in the world because high-minded leaders can let go of the moral principles when the time, cause or the price is right

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Granted, Naomi Campbell is not very nice or clever. But I really don't see why the beautiful, sullen, 'dotish' airhead becomes the empty vessel into which the world tosses its scorn. It has nothing to do with her race – Campbell will always be the dahling of fashionistas to whom her colour has never mattered. OK, so she wasn't the cool, stylish dame last week that she usually is. Of course, it is an inconvenience for one to whom the meaning of life is make-up, frocks, jewels, cameras, Mammon, smitten men and fawning fans. I am not being facetious. She had to be ordered to The Hague to give evidence at the war crimes trial of Liberia's toppled leader Charles Taylor, who stands accused of sponsoring savage rebellions in the region. So, she doesn't know where Liberia is and couldn't care less about his misdemeanours and all that boring stuff. What do you expect? She is who she is – a supermodel, as it says on the tin.

It is not Campbell that is truly appalling, but the chorus of disapproval we have heard this week from people who showed no interest in the trial until a dumb beauty turned up to entertain them. That is racism – treating massacres in Africa as "natural" or inevitable. Taylor was indicted in June 2003; the case began in January 2008. Gruesome testimonies have come and gone. Campbell has done human rights a service. The media got excited and took their cameras to the courtroom. At least millions now will have heard of The Hague, learnt a few facts about a Liberian warlord, an African-American, like most of the elite in that West African country, created through colonising land on behalf of freed slaves. They may even fleetingly have registered the name of Sierra Leone and noted the term "blood diamonds".

Let's face it, before the celeb appearance nobody gave a damn. We did briefly ,when Britain's military intervention there in 2000 helped to stop the widespread carnage, which was rightly one of Tony Blair's proudest moments. Now, though, there is only blank apathy, the same as Campbell. So why chastise her?

Judges from Sierra Leone are overseeing this sombre hearing. Taylor allegedly armed the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which wreaked havoc in their country in the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of blameless citizens, countless villages were "punished" by crazed soldiers, some of them only young teenagers. Even babies had their hands and feet hacked off and rape became as common as hooch after a hard day. To understand what that country went through, the effects of the civil war and the enduring agony, read The Memory Of Love by the half-Sierra Leonean Aminatta Forna.

Taylor is accused of arming the RUF in return for blood diamonds from Sierra Leone where diggers – men, women and children paid almost nothing – work to bring up the gems from gravel and mud pits, using their hands and crude tools. They have often been coerced by the powerful. When he was elected to run Liberia in 1997, the warlord Taylor was bathed in so much blood, few could believe his victory or bear to accept him as a leader.

Yet there he was, that same year with a whole bunch of the rich and powerful invited by Nelson Mandela to tour on a five-star train in South Africa and then on to his presidential residence. The Liberian butcher got prime place at the top table, even though Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, apparently found it distasteful. There is a happy photograph to mark the jamboree – Taylor, Mia Farrow, Imran and his then wife Jemima, Naomi Campbell and others and a smiling Mandela. He needed money and publicity for his children's charity; many of his guests wanted his priceless endorsement by association. Those who have it all must have ethical validation too.

A pouch, Campbell says, was handed to her in the middle of that night, containing "dirty pebbles". Used to big, shiny bling, she says she did not recognise them, those uncut, damned diamonds that would scream if they could. Some, remember, were bought and sold illegally by western dealers. The charge is that they were sent by Taylor. State villainy carries on in the world because high-minded leaders can let go of moral principles when the time, cause or price is right. Even Mandela, an undoubtedly great man. In his years as president, he too often failed to condemn elected African, Arab and other Third World despots and refused to intervene in high-profile cases of gross abuse of power – like that of the respected Nigerian environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who exposed dangerous oil explorations in his country and was hanged by Nigerian authorities in 1995. That jolly picture of Mandela with Taylor gave the warlord an alibi and cheap blessings.



Miss Lachlan, our French teacher back in Uganda, was wiry and overwrought, a bit of a Joan of Arc who taught us to despise corrupt politicians, translated for us Pascal's greatest philosophical utterances. One was "silence is the greatest of all persecutions: no saint was ever silent".

In the end, the most powerless Liberians got back their country and restored political and moral order. Gandhian non-violent political action by Muslim and Christian women, led by a truly courageous Leymah Gbowee, finally forced peace talks, a return to decent governance and ended the adventures of Charles Taylor. A documentary Pray The Devil Back To Hell, which can be seen online, filmed this remarkable campaign.

This week, Campbell will be the focus again as her testimony is contradicted by her former agent, Carole White, and fellow guest, Mia Farrow, who have said Campbell knew what the gems were – as if that matters. Anyway Campbell passed them over to the Mandela charity. Farrow, warrior for human rights, did not leave the gathering when she found Taylor there. Nor did Imran and Jemima Khan.

The sinner went away happy, oppressed his nation for five more years, recruited boy killers, enriched himself further, perhaps gave some loot to Nelson Mandela's charity? I hope that much more important question is answered during the trial and we discover the names of others who never asked themselves what they were doing snuggling up to Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor. And I hope we too follow this story, even after Campbell has got her vacuous life back.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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