By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 29 2019 – When two-time Wimbledon tennis champion Boris Becker, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, refused to make a commitment not to play in South Africa, a country blacklisted for its apartheid policies, the UN children’s agency stripped him of the prestigious title, back in October 1987.
“I will be 20 years old this year and I am a good professional tennis player, but I think that I am too young to enter politics,” Becker said, while the then West German government protested the UNICEF firing, backing one of its own nationals.
And now 32 years later, another UNICEF goodwill ambassador Priyanka Chopra, a movie star and fashion model of Indian origin, is mired in a political controversy over her implicit support for the Indian armed forces poised to go to war with neighboring Pakistan over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
“So, the goodwill ambassador has become a messenger of ill-will,’ Masood Haider, a longstanding UN correspondent for Pakistan’s leading English newspaper “Dawn”, told IPS.
At a press briefing August 22, Haider complained that UNICEF did not respond to a message seeking comments.
“I asked you about this Priyanka Chopra, the [Goodwill Ambassador], and I called UNICEF, and I called the press office… But nobody has responded at all.”
UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters: “I can tell you that, for any Goodwill Ambassador, whether it’s Ms. Chopra or anyone else, we expect them to adhere to impartial positions when they speak on behalf of UNICEF or any other organization,” he said.
“When they speak in their personal capacity, they retain the right to speak about issues of interests or concern to them. Their personal views, however, do not reflect those of the agency with which they may be affiliated with,” he added.
According to an October 1987 report in the New York Times, Horst Cerni, a director of special projects for UNICEF, said Becker’s association with UNICEF, which began in April 1986, had been terminated because Becker had failed to say that he would never return to South Africa.
Becker was blacklisted by the UN Center Against Apartheid after he played in South Africa as a member of the West German Federation’s junior team in 1984. He was, however, only 16 years old at the time, traveling with the team and trying to qualify for the main draw of a grand prix event, the Times reported.
UNICEF says its Ambassadors are leaders in the entertainment industry, representing the fields of film, television, music, sports and beyond.
“They demonstrate leadership in their professions and serve as positive role models through their work”.
As the first to instill an Ambassador Programme, with the appointment of celebrated actor Danny Kaye in 1954, UNICEF’s envoys have played a critical role in raising awareness of the needs for children, and have continued to use their talent and fame to fundraise, advocate, and educate on behalf of UNICEF, says the children’s agency.
Together, UNICEF Ambassadors have proven that being a public figure can be a powerful tool in mobilizing the support necessary to improve the lives of children and ensure their basic human rights
Salim Lone, a former Director of the United Nations News and Media Division, told IPS that Chopra, with tens of millions of social media followers, made an alarming comment recently.
“War is not something that I’m really fond of, but I am patriotic,” was how the Bollywood/Hollywood superstar, who was appointed UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 2016, described her views on war amid the rising tensions between India and Pakistan, he pointed out.
“She had a few months earlier tweeted her support for her country’s armed forces as Indian jets bombed an alleged militant camp in Pakistan, risking another war, potentially nuclear this time,” said Lone, a former Spokesman for the head of the UN mission in Iraq.
He said the entire world’s stability is being beset by an escalating degradation of long-held global values, many of which were pioneered and entrenched by the United Nations.
“The organization will undermine its greatest strength, its moral credibility, if it itself succumbs to this rising scourge”
Had UNICEF spoken to Ms. Chopra after her unfortunate February tweet, as it once used to do in such situations, she would not now have gone farther and suggested that patriotism required support for war, argued Lone.
After the outcry against Chopra’s remarks about not “really loving war”, the UN explained that its envoys adhere to UN guidelines whenever they speak on behalf of the organization. However, they are free to express personal opinions on other occasions.
“That is intolerable,” said Lone. “If someone who expresses racist or misogynistic or indeed pro-war sentiments in the name of freedom of personal expression can be kept on as a UN ambassador, then the UN will be seen to be actively contributing to the degradation it was created to end”.
In any event, he said, about three decades ago, another renowned UNICEF ambassador Boris Becker played in a tennis tournament in apartheid South Africa. When he refused to give UNICEF reassurance he wouldn’t do so again, that relationship was terminated, Lone added.
Meanwhile, in a testy exchange of words at a cosmetic industry’s trade show event in California in mid- August, Chopra said; “I have many, many friends from Pakistan, and I am from India, and war is not something that I’m really fond of but I am patriotic.”
“So, I’m sorry if I hurt sentiments to people who do love me and have loved me, but I think that all of us have a sort of middle ground that we all have to walk.”
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org