Ziegler's Follies

By Hillel Neuer

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

Despite these claims, Ziegler continues to be listed by the prize’s own website—as well as by the Libyan state press service—as one of its 2002 laureates.37 According to a December 2005 article in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung,Ziegler did in fact accept the award, although he did so as a representative of his research center at the University of Geneva.38 The center was founded in 1989—the same year in which Ziegler announced the Libyan leader’s $10 million grant for the prize.
When Ziegler was nominated for an additional UN post in 2006, an international coalition of human rights organizations—including Cuban and Libyan victims of human rights violations—sent a letter of protest to the Swiss government.39 The appeal cited Ziegler’s leadership role in founding the Qaddafi Prize as one among many examples of his support for oppressive regimes. Ziegler’s response was notable: “The Qaddafi Prize?” he said, “How could I have created it? It’s absurd!”40
In the year 2000, Ziegler achieved a position of global influence well beyond that of a Geneva parliamentarian. Upon the initiative of Cuba, the UN Commission on Human Rights created the position of “Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food” and appointed Jean Ziegler to the post for a three-year term. The office of Mary Robinson, then high commissioner for human rights, put his name forward, and the appointment was assured by vigorous lobbying on the part of the Swiss government and certain Arab states. For Ziegler, it was nothing less than a dream come true:
My job as Special Rapporteur was like a celestial phenomenon, an enlightenment, salvation—a gift. Finally, everything comes together. Everything I have done in my life makes sense now: My criticism of capitalism, my preoccupation with the Third World, my cries, my tears.41
In an attempt, perhaps, to rise to the occasion, Ziegler announced that he was turning over a new leaf: “My life will change dramatically,” he insisted. “The period of attacks is over; now I will have to seek consensus.”42 Unfortunately, this change of heart appears to have been largely rhetorical in nature. Over the last seven years—he has remained in office past his six-year term limit due to a technicality—Ziegler has only intensified his outspoken activism.
This is especially apparent in Ziegler’s relationship to the United States. On numerous occasions, he has used his UN office as a bully pulpit to express his anti-American views, usually by placing issues in a false context. For example, less than two weeks after al-Qaida’s September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, Ziegler announced his opposition to any potential American military response to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, saying it would have “apocalyptic” consequences and spell “the end for the Afghan nation.”43 Within weeks, however, Ziegler’s political opposition to the war had transformed into an objection related to food supply: He claimed, for instance, that food drops by the Allied forces violated “the key principles of humanitarian organizations and international law.” In an even stranger twist, Ziegler would later oppose the drops on the grounds that they might inadvertently end up feeding the Taliban.44
A similar sleight of hand occurred with respect to the Iraq war: In February 2003, Ziegler stated that war in Iraq should be avoided at all costs and even proposed that his native Switzerland offer sanctuary to Saddam Hussein.45 Two months later, however, he was accusing coalition forces of violating the Iraqis’ basic rights to food and water.46
Ziegler’s treatment of Cuba is particularly prominent in this regard. In nearly every report he has made to the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly, Ziegler has criticized America and its embargo of Cuba as a “flagrant” violation of international law in general and the right to food in particular. Ironically, during Ziegler’s mandate Cuba has never appeared on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) emergency list.47 In October 2007, Ziegler undertook an official mission to the communist-ruled island, hailing the Castro regime as a government “in the vanguard of the struggle for the right to food.”48
The vitriol of Ziegler’s anti-Americanism is particularly striking when compared to his criticism of other countries.49 He has referred to President Bush, for example, as “the Pinochet who sits in the White House,”50 asserted that the American government is an imperialist dictatorship that uses “predators” and “mercenaries” to implement world domination,51 and claimed that the United States is committing “genocide” in Cuba.52 By contrast, Ziegler has referred to the genocide in Darfur as a mere cause for “concern”, and has characterized Khartoum’s role in the atrocities as “alleged.”53
Ziegler’s attitude toward Israel is equally intense. As far back as 1982, during the First Lebanon War, he unsuccessfully lobbied for the expulsion of Shimon Peres, then head of Israel’s Labor party, from the Socialist International.54 Less than a year into his term at the UN, Ziegler delivered a report accusing Israel of policies that “created hunger and threaten starvation of the most destitute.”55 In January 2003, he told Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya, an Egyptian quarterly, that the policies of “colonial repression” practiced by Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials are “criminal and classifiable as crimes against humanity.” He declared that “an international force is urgently required to ensure that no further demolition of houses and destruction of livelihood of the Palestinian people take place.”56 Later that year, after testifying before the UN Third Committee on Human Rights, Ziegler informed journalists that Israel was responsible for inflicting “some form of brain damage” upon Palestinian children.57
The peak of Ziegler’s anti-Israel rhetoric came in 2004, however, with his presentation of a report to the Commission on Human Rights describing his visit to the West Bank and Gaza—significantly, the only foreign locale he had visited that year.58 His twenty-five-page report accused Israel of numerous violations of human rights while simultaneously exculpating Palestinian terrorist groups from any responsibility for the conflict.59 Ziegler then swiftly issued a UN press release that “urgently” condemned Israel for destroying tunnels used by Palestinians for smuggling weapons and called for an “outpouring of condemnation” against the Jewish state.60 The Israeli army was accused of torturing and killing civilians, and then-prime minister Ariel Sharon of committing “state terror.”61
In May of that year, Ziegler also authored a letter to Caterpillar Inc., on official UN stationery, urging the maker of bulldozers and other heavy equipment to boycott Israel, a demand soon adopted by the Arab League’s Central Boycott Office in Damascus.62 A few months later, Ziegler fired off another official UN letter, this time to the European Commission, urging it to cancel its trade agreement with Israel because of the latter’s alleged violations of the Palestinians’ right to food. This final missive was particularly bizarre because by the UN’s own standards, the food, situation in the Palestinian territories has never come remotely close to the “catastrophe” Ziegler described, nor has it ever been ranked as one of the world’s food emergencies.63 In fact, when the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition compared nutritional risk in selected refugee populations in November 2003, the West Bank and Gaza ranked lowest.
Ziegler had by this time become so identified with the Palestinian cause that when reporters in Brussels asked the Commission on Human Rights for a response to the report, they identified him as the “Special Rapporteur on Palestine”—a position Ziegler has never held.64 Perhaps chastened by a 2004 UN Watch legal brief detailing his abuse of his mandate, Ziegler did moderate his behavior for a time.65 This respite ended in the summer of 2005, however, when, at a pro-Palestinian rally in Geneva, he called Gaza “an immense concentration camp,” and Israeli soldiers “concentration camp guards.”66 The following year, the Second Lebanon War galvanized Ziegler’s renewed involvement in the region. During the war, the Human Rights Council sent a mission to the war zone to document Israeli “war crimes.” In addition, four of the council’s human rights experts conducted their own fact-finding mission. Yet Ziegler decided to visit Lebanon in order to conduct his own inquiry into alleged Israeli violations of the Lebanese people’s right to food. While in Lebanon, he referred to Hezbollah as a legitimate political organization.67 At the conclusion of the mission, he held a UN press conference in which he called for Israeli officers to be prosecuted for war crimes.68

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