Hilary Swank is making news for her warm birthday wishes to one of the world’s most cold-blooded leaders, Chechen tyrant Ramzan Kadyrov.
On Oct. 5, Swank attended the Chechen president’s lavish 35th birthday party, along with actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, singer Seal and British violinist Vanessa-Mae. For this engagement, each of these performers reportedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars in appearance fees. On videos posted to YouTube, Swank can be seen saying to Kadyrov, “Happy birthday, Mr. President.” Van Damme tells him, “I love you.”
Kadyrov’s egregious human rights record makes this affectionate embrace deeply disturbing. Freedom House has consistently found Chechnya to be one of the world’s most violently repressive places.
The Grozny episode of celebrities for sale would be less troubling if it were an isolated case. It isn’t, however. A raft of Western entertainers and celebrities, including Mariah Carey, Usher, Beyoncé and Sharon Stone, have hired themselves out to some of the world’s most odious human rights abusers, their children or close associates.
Carey, for example, performed in 2008 for the family of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, receiving a reported $1 million from the Gaddafis for a four-song appearance on the island of St. Barts in the Caribbean. Only after this performance was brought into public view did Carey express regrets: “I was naive and unaware of who I was booked to perform for. I feel horrible and embarrassed to have participated in this mess,” Carey claimed, though her embarrassment apparently was not sufficient to cause her to part with her large paycheck from the event.
In response to reporters’ queries, Swank last week issued a statement similar to Carey’s: “I deeply regret attending this event. If I had a full understanding of what this event was apparently intended to be, I would never have gone.” A spokesperson for Swank said that before the event the actress was not aware of Kadyrov’s alleged role in extrajudicial executions and disappearances in Chechnya.
Other successful entertainers have been unable to resist big paydays from authoritarian sources. Singers Nelly Furtado, Usher and Beyoncé also gave private performances for the Gaddafi family in recent years. Furtado, for her part, quickly decided to donate her $1 million fee (for a 45-minute set in 2007) from the performance to charity. Only following a public outcry did Usher and Beyoncé indicate that they, too, would donate their pay from the private party. Carey has promised that proceeds from a single, “Save the Day,” would be dedicated to the cause of human rights.
Stone has revealed a weakness for the handsome appearance fees for events with political leaders and oligarchs in Russia and other repressive settings throughout the former Soviet Union. In December, at a controversial gala for a children’s charity, the actress sang a duet of “Blueberry Hill” with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Stone reportedly receives a quarter-million dollars for each of these appearances.
As for the entertainers who took part in the recent event in Chechnya with Kadyrov, while Swank has been shamed into donating her fee to charity, the others are apparently keeping their checks. Seal has to date vigorously defended his performance for the tyrant Kadyrov.
Pressure is growing for the celebrities who benefited from the shameful Kadyrov debacle to return fees. Given easy access to information on human rights records via the Internet, pleading ignorance in these cases stretches credulity. Anyone doing even basic due diligence would quickly learn that the records of the likes of Kadyrov, Gaddafi and Putin would place them way out of bounds.
Many celebrities distinguish themselves by lending their names to worthwhile humanitarian causes. But in the same way that star power can be used to raise awareness about human rights violations, combat major health-care challenges or protect children, it can also be used to give dictators and their families a veneer of prestige and respectability.
By turning a blind eye to the source of these payments, these entertainers do a grave disservice to themselves as well as to ordinary people who suffer at the hands of despots. Celebrities who want to lend their names to causes should resist the temptation of big, easy money from tyrants and instead follow the lead of those such as Bono and Angelina Jolie. The stars who fail this test deserve no applause.
The writer is vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House.