Nicolas Cage: Organizing Against Organized Crime

Celebrity power at work; American film star turned philanthropist promises to “stop being an actor and start taking action”

UN Office of Drugs and Crime Goodwill Ambassador Nicolas Cage and UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov at the Fifth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Vienna, 21 October 2010 | Photo: UNODC

The corridors of the United Nations headquarters were lined with employees, cell phones in hand, ready to snap a picture. A large security and media team swarmed the premises – not for a visiting head of state, as one might expect at an international governmental organization.  It was for the American actor Nicolas Cage.

Cage, who was on hand to address the Conference on Transnational Organized Crime as the ‘Good Will Ambassador for Global Justice’, designated in Dec. 2009 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The five-day session Oct. 18-22, the fifth of its kind held in Vienna, promised to ignite a debate on the heavy toll of international crime world-wide.  Although the visit from the Oscar-winning actor seemed unusual, it is in fact part of a growing trend of celebrity participation in foreign affairs and domestic politics.

For decades, actors, athletes, musicians, writers, and artists have used their fame and influence to draw attention to a range of causes; great examples are the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh organized by George Harrison or the Live Aid concerts of 1985 organized by Bob Geldof.

Although little is known about their actual effectiveness, these events manage to draw enormous crowds. Harrison’s event played to a sold-out Madison Square Garden twice, while Geldof attracted two billion viewers across 60 countries, becoming one of the largest television broadcasts of all time.

The past decade has seen an even greater influx of celebrities into the political and social arena. Through the efforts of actors such as George Clooney, Don Cheadle, and Angelina Jolie, the plight of the victims in Sudan has become a household topic. Through their public relations efforts for the Save Darfur Coalition, 350 rallies were held, thousands of letters to the editor written, and over a million emails sent to the White House, raising the level of public awareness instrumental in prompting a government investigation into the atrocities. Last year, British actress Emma Thompson was in Vienna to promote a documentary film about human trafficking she had worked on with director Katharina Rohrer (see “Making ‘Fatal Promises’” The Vienna Review, Dec. 2009). The film hoped to raise public awareness of human trafficking while addressing the almost sadly comic trend of NGOs wasting their resources on conferences instead of aiding victims.

It doesn’t always work this well: A recent inquiry into the effectiveness of the ONE Campaign to eradicate poverty and hunger in Africa, established by U2’s Bono, revealed that only 1% of the public donations given to the foundation actually reached those in need. Whatever the good intentions, better oversight is necessary and a greater understanding of how to address an issue is necessary to efficacy.

Nicolas Cage has gone to great lengths to be well-versed on his cause. The charitable fund he has set up for former child soldiers provides rehabilitation shelters, medical, and psychological treatment to the victims of this atrocity. Instead of dumping money on a problem, Cage’s charity provides victims with the necessary means to address the root of their difficulties.

On this occasion, he seemed to have an intimate understanding of the issue:

“I’d like to tell you the story of a boy I met last year during a UNODC mission to East Africa. I’ll call him Rashad.” Cage recalled an encounter while visiting a prison in Mombasa, during his speech to the conference in Vienna. The boy was a 15-year-old Somali orphan who grew up in “a desperate and disorganized society impoverished by a devastating civil war.” He had been captured off the Horn of Africa by a European naval ship. He was put on trial and given a ten-year sentence for piracy at the age of 15.

“Rashad is considered a criminal because he was a pirate,” said Cage, “But it is important to recognize that he is also a victim on transnational organized crime.” The differences are huge between the life of an average 15-year-old in the West and that of a boy without parents, growing up in the conditions that drive one to crime.

“We must not forget, there are many kinds of victims of organized crime,” he pleaded in his speech, “and that children are among the most vulnerable.” He went on to make a case for changing the way we perceive criminals and victims, asking, “if a young child is forced to become a soldier or a drug mule or a prostitute, is that child a criminal – or a victim?”

Cage exhorted member states to ratify and implement the UN convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its three Protocols, a sign that he is aware of member states’ role as the engine behind UN decision-making.

Following the actor’s address, Cage was hurried out by security to another event at the UN: the opening of an exhibit of photography by former Good Will Ambassador Alexander Skotti, focusing on the “soft core” side of human trafficking. The photos were of children begging, young women who were trafficked to become sex workers and infamous locations on trafficking routes, all intended to broaden the public’s awareness of the numerous and varied types of human trafficking.

As Cage spoke at the ribbon-cutting of the exhibition, journalists and cameramen pushed and fought to get a better view of the actor-turned-philanthropist. But the media chaos revealed the potential for such celebrity endorsement to – for better or for worse – raise public awareness of such a cause. In this case, it seemed for the better. Should other public icons adopt Cage’s informed and sincere approach, Hollywood’s infatuation with philanthropy could indeed have the desired effect.

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