Angelina Jolie speaks

The movie star Angelina Jolie drew a full house on October 17th when she spoke at New York’s prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. As we have found, taking “celanthropists” (celebrity philanthropists) seriously can get you accused of being star struck, so the same accusation may be leveled at the collection of leading policy thinkers, diplomats, generals and serious media who hung on her every word.

Yet being a celebrity, especially a famously beautiful one, does not necessarily make you an air head. The Jolie-Pitt Foundation funded a fascinating discussion on “International Law and Justice: Evolving Norms and US Responses”. Speakers included former US general Wesley Clark, foreign policy advisors to Barack Obama and John McCain, and Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Mr Ocampo was criticized by one questioner for thanking “a private foundation” for its support, suggesting that this was somehow undermining his integrity.

This is the sort of criticism philanthropists and those who partner with them will have to get used to, as philanthrocapitalism increasingly moves into politically sensitive territory, such as whether to prosecute a sitting head of state.

The standard criticism of celanthropists is that they peddle superficial, simplistic solutions. Yet in her talk, as she did when we interviewed her for the book, Jolie modestly stressed that she still had much to learn and that she did not know if the ICC was the answer to some of the human rights abuses she was highlighting. True, she did argue that peace negotiations, such as might occur in Sudan over Darfur, should not buy peace at the price of giving abusive leaders impunity from justice. Some might call that naïve, but it is exactly the same position that Ocampo took moments later.

Matthew asked Ocampo if his job would be easier if he could offer a plea bargain to a “criminal” head of state, allowing him or her to go into exile with safe haven from prosecution for going quietly. There have been suggestions that the fear of prosecution of himself and his henchman deterred Robert Mugabe from accepting an offer of exile after the first round of presidential elections in Zimbabwe earlier this year. Ocampo insisted that the era of leaders such as Idi Amin accepting exile in Saudi Arabia is over.

That may disappoint at least one philanthrocapitalist, Richard Branson, who as we report in the book, hatched a plan on the eve of the 2002 invasion of Iraq to fly Nelson Mandela into Baghdad to talk Saddam Hussein into going into exile, and thereby avoid a terrible war. Alas, the bombing started before the plan could be executed. Yet the plan planted a seed in Branson’s head that ultimately led to an innovative approach to global problem solving, the creation of The Elders, a group of former world leaders selected by Mandela to act as international troubleshooters.