Ziegler's Follies

By Hillel Neuer

The strange story of one UN official`s dubious affair with radicalism.

On March 26, 2008, to cheers and acclaim, Jean Ziegler was elected by the newly formed United Nations Human Rights Council to serve as one of its expert advisers. It was hardly an unexpected development. Switzerland had announced his nomination in December 2007, beginning an unprecedented lobbying campaign by the Swiss government on behalf of its nominee, featuring, among other things, a glossy booklet sent to capitals around the world documenting his “unwavering commitment to,” “excellent knowledge of,” and “unstinting support for” human rights. Not for the first time, Ziegler, a former sociology professor, a member of the Swiss parliament, and currently the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, stood at the center of a perfect storm of adoration and acclaim. It was one more triumph in a remarkable career.

Granted tenure in 1977 by the University of Geneva, Ziegler founded and directed its Social Laboratory of Third World Civilizations. He has taught at numerous European universities, including the Sorbonne, where he served in 1984 as an associate professor of sociology and economics. In March 2004, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Belgium’s University of Mons-Hainaut, where he was hailed as “the modern-day Condorcet”—the great Enlightenment philosopher of human rights. Ziegler is also the author of more than twenty books for popular audiences, most of which are dedicated to asserting that hunger and other human miseries are the inevitable products of Western capitalism and globalization. His works The New Rulers of the World and The Empire of Shame, for example, have become European best-sellers, distributed by leading French publishing houses and discussed by Ziegler in such forums as TV5, the international French-language channel.1 His literary success was officially recognized by the French Republic in 1994, when the Ministry of Culture named him a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. This prestigious honorific is awarded for contributions to the “radiance” of arts and letters in both France and the world as a whole. Not surprisingly, Ziegler lists the accolade prominently in his curriculum vitae.
Ziegler has found his greatest success, however, in the European media, which considers him a highly credible and well-respected authority on human rights. Leading newspapers such as France’s Le Monde, Le Figaro, Liberation, and La Croix as well as Geneva’s Le Temps quote him regularly. Profiles of Ziegler have also appeared in premier European magazines, such as the German weekly Der Spiegel.2 In Switzerland, the Foreign Press Association granted him its “Most Popular” award.3 “You are a little miracle,” declared journalist Daniel Mermet when he interviewed Ziegler in April 2007 for L-bas si j’y suis, a popular program on the public radio station France Inter. “[You have] an amazing… taste and feeling for denunciation and revolt.”4 In sum, Jean Ziegler is a darling of Europe’s academic, literary, and media elite.
To be sure, none of this would be problematic if Jean Ziegler were simply an innocuous idealist. But he is not. Besides being one of Europe’s most successful celebrity activists, Ziegler is also one of the continent’s most industrious anti-American and anti-Israel ideologues as well as a prominent apologist for a rogues’ gallery of Third World dictators, including Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. During Ziegler’s tenure as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the cause of world hunger consistently took a backseat to the promotion of his anti-Western ideology. At a time when the UN is heralding the reform of its human rights apparatus, replacing the discredited Commission on Human Rights with a new council which it has described as the “dawn of a new era,” the case of Jean Ziegler casts grave doubt on the possible success of this reform and reveals the precipitous and accelerating decline of the UN human rights system and the international human rights movement as a whole.
Jean Ziegler was born Hans Ziegler in 1934 in the town of Thun, located in the German-speaking area of Switzerland. Ziegler’s political conversion, like that of many young radicals, began in his teens, when he left the confines of his traditional Calvinist home for the allure of Paris. There he discovered Marxism and the political philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, changed his name to Jean, and joined a militant circle that supported the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in its war against France. Ziegler’s passion for the FLN and its violent campaign for Algerian independence proved so extreme that the French Communist party eventually expelled him. He later returned to Switzerland and earned a law degree, only to switch fields and obtain a doctorate in sociology. Finally, in the early 1960s, he spent two years in the Congo as an assistant to a UN special envoy. The misery he witnessed there made him resolve “never to be on the side of the executioners.”5
Eventually, Ziegler’s advocacy of Algerian independence and his experiences in the war-torn Congo deepened into an all-encompassing embrace of revolutionary politics in general. He began to admire such iconic figures as the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the guerilla leader Che Guevara. When the latter visited Geneva in 1964 as part of a Cuban trade delegation, Ziegler served as his chauffeur. He reportedly asked Guevara if he could return with him to Cuba and join the revolution. “Here is the brain of the monster,” said the rebel leader. Pointing to the affluent city in the heart of Europe, Guevara continued: “Your fight is here.”6 Ziegler stayed.
By 1967, Ziegler had won a seat in the Swiss parliament as a Social Democrat, a position he held—with a brief interruption of four years—until 1999. During his long tenure, he served as president of the Swiss Third World parliamentary party and as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and he sat on the Executive Council of the Socialist International. In addition, he published a slew of books that leveled sensational charges against various prominent businessmen. This led to numerous successful lawsuits against him, in which he was eventually found liable for defamation. To this day, according to Ziegler, part of his earnings are used to pay for the judgments against him.7
Yet despite Ziegler’s legal troubles—or perhaps because of them—his many admirers depict him as a fearless iconoclast fighting the good fight for the wretched of the earth. As a result, today Ziegler is one of Europe’s most popular exponents of revolutionary “Third-Worldism,” a vaguely Manichaean ideology that sees the industrial West as an imperialist power that ruthlessly exploits the Third World, keeping it mired in poverty and suffering. Accordingly, Third-Worldists passionately support revolutionary movements and leaders opposed to Western capitalism.
Of course, Ziegler’s fervent stance has acquired critics as well as admirers. Indeed, even some of his most prominent defenders have acknowledged that his work is not always trustworthy. His mentor Roger Girod, head of the University of Geneva’s sociology department, conceded while arguing for Ziegler’s tenure that “the pamphleteer is never wholly absent” in his scholarship and that “the most penetrating analyses are marked by polemical partisanship.” Moreover, Girod continued, “since he writes rapidly, Jean Ziegler does not eliminate his factual errors.”8 Girod’s support notwithstanding, the 1977 decision to grant Ziegler tenure provoked outrage from several scholars and public figures in Switzerland, one of whom, the historian Herbert Lithy, carried through on a threat to return his honorary doctorate in protest.9
Indeed, Ziegler himself has admitted that in the struggle to convey his overarching message, facts are not always his first concern.10 He claims that as a child in Switzerland in the 1940s he witnessed a train accident in which a crashed vehicle was revealed to be carrying Nazi weapons, demolishing his youthful illusions about his country’s alleged neutrality. Ziegler presents this incident as a primal, formative experience, essential to the shaping of his adult character. Der Spiegel has reported, however, that there is no record of such a crash, and Ziegler’s own sister thinks he invented the story.11 Indeed, Ziegler’s strained relationship with the truth has led one Swiss reporter to conclude a lengthy profile of the UN Special Rapporteur by describing him as a “menteur et affabulateur”—a liar and a teller of tales.12
Yet by dint of Ziegler’s charisma, rhetorical skills, and knack for generating publicity—an easy recipe for media success in the otherwise stolid Alpine redoubt—as well as the vital support he receives from political and media figures sympathetic to his cause, his career has maintained a steady upward trajectory. To be sure, Ziegler’s polemics have occasionally done some good: In the 1990s, for example, he played a key role in exposing the complicity of Swiss banks in laundering Nazi gold. In general, however, this has been the exception that proves the rule. For the most part, Ziegler’s advocacy has been undertaken on behalf of dubious and troubling causes.

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