Why Angelina Jolie Means So Much to the United Nations

It may surprise people to learn, but Angelina is not a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations; nor is she some sort of official celebrity spokesperson. Rather, she is a full fledged diplomat. In 2010 after years of serving as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency the High Commissioner for Refugees made her his special envoy. She represents the UN Refugee Agency to other diplomats, governments and officials around the world.

But what obviously distinguishes her from other international civil servants is that she’s Angelina Jolie. By virtue of her star power, she can draw significant attention to issues that otherwise might pass without much notice from the mainstream press.

Today was a good case in point. The Security Council held a special session on addressing sexual violence in armed conflict. This issue has been a priority for Secretary General Ban Ki Moon since 2010 when he first appointed a special representative for sexual violence in armed conflict. A Security Council resolution backing up the work of this special representative is an important moment for the UN system, but it probably would have gone generally unnoticed outside Turtle Bay  if not for the fact that Angelina Jolie testified at the Security Council today.

Hayes Brown offers a good summary of her remarks:

Jolie told the Security Council to look beyond the vast numbers of men, women, and children who had been the victim of sexual violence, and instead remember that each of those numbers is “a person with a name, personality, a story, and dreams no different than ours and those of our children.” She went on to describe some of the stories she had heard in her time in refugee camps, including one from a woman in the Democratic Republic of the Congo whose five year-old had been raped in plain-view of a police station. A Syrian woman Jolie met with in her visit to a refugee camp in Jordan last week asked that her name and face be withheld so as to not to provoke future reprisals against her, Jolie told the Council.

“The United Nations charter is clear that you, the Security Council, have primary responsibility for the maintenence of international peace and security,” Jolie reminded the body, scorning the lack of prosecution of rapists among the ranks militaries and militias and the low priority the international community had given the issue. “Rape as a weapon of war is an assault on security and a world in which these crimes happen is one in which there is not, and never will be, peace,” she said. Refusal to act, Jolie stressed, is not an option:

JOLIE: I understand there are many things that it is difficult for the Security Council to agree on, but sexual violence in conflict should not be one of them.That it is a crime to rape young children is not something anyone in this room would not be able to agree on. […] That young Syrian rape victim is here because you represent her. That five year-old child in the Congo must count because you represent her. And in her eyes, if her attacker gets away with his crimes, it is because you have allowed it. You set the bar. If the United Nations Security Council sets rape and sexual violence in conflict as a priority, it will become one and progress will be made. If you do not, this horror will continue.

Here’s why this matters.  The special representative for sexual violence in armed conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura cannot force countries to make rape a criminal offense. Nor can Ms. Bangura issue ultimatums to militaries to train their troops in such a way that protects women, rather than targets then.  Rather, her success ultimately depends on the willingness of governments to make combating sexual violence a priority.

What generally tips countries on the fence is a kind of of peer pressure. That’s where Angelina Jolie comes in.  When she speaks at the Security Council, more than just the usual UN-watchers take notice. Her speech concluded only a couple of hours ago and there are already hundreds of news articles about her remarks, syndicated through the wires. This is awareness raising in action. And it can have real-world consequences for the global fight against sexual violence in armed conflict.

Bonus: As it happens, I interviewed the special representative for sexual violence in armed conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura just a few weeks ago. Ms Bangura tells a compelling personal story that lead her into this line of work.  Our conversation starts at minute 11 and lasts about 15 minutes.