Ziegler's Follies

By Hillel Neuer

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

Ziegler’s fascination with political violence would seem to have begun at an early age. In a 1993 profile in l’Illustre, a Swiss version of America’s Life magazine, a photograph of an eleven-year-old Ziegler appears. He is dressed in a military cadet uniform, holding what appears to be a training gun. On the opposite page are pictures of him as an adult, this time posing with real weapons. In a 1976 photograph, he is shown brandishing a Kalashnikov while on a solidarity visit with the Eritrean Liberation Front. In an image from 1979, he is in Ho Chi Minh’s Hanoi, standing atop a captured American tank. A 1981 picture shows him at a podium in Managua, addressing Sandinista soldiers (Ziegler has a medal from the Sandinista National Liberation Front).13 Finally, there is a photograph of him in a tent with armed militants from the Polisario Front, fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara—this time his 12-year-old son is holding the Kalashnikov.
This affinity for the radical and violent side of politics is more than aesthetic. Ziegler has actively supplied political and diplomatic aid to some of the most brutal regimes in recent memory. Ethiopian dictator colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, accused of widespread human rights violations and of bringing his country to starvation, handpicked Ziegler in 1986 to be one of five experts who prepared a constitution calling for one-party rule—Ziegler was the only one from outside the Soviet bloc.14 Ziegler has also paid visits to Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Kim Il Sung in North Korea,15 and in 2002 he fawned over Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe—then in the midst of engineering mass famine through violent land seizures—saying, “Mugabe has history and morality with him.”16 Regarding Hezbollah, Zeigler has stated that “I refuse to describe Hezbollah as a terrorist group. It is a national movement of resistance.”17
Ziegler has also helped to promote and protect the careers of several European intellectuals with questionable if not disturbing reputations. In April 1996, for instance, he came to the defense of Roger Garaudy, a former French Stalinist and convert to Islam whose book The Founding Myths of Modern Israel denies the Holocaust.18 In response to the public controversy provoked by the book, Ziegler wrote a letter of support to Garaudy, which the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH)—a group dedicated to the promotion of Holocaust denial—published in full on its website:
I am outraged at the legal case they are making against you.... All your work as a writer and philosopher attests to the rigor of your analysis and the unwavering honesty of your intentions. It makes you one of the leading thinkers of our time.... It is for all these reasons that I express here my solidarity and my admiring friendship.19
Ziegler has also come to the aid of Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Islamic author who has written in praise of his maternal grandfather Hasan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, and Sheikh al-Qaradawi, the contemporary theologian of the human bomb.20 Ramadan, also reared in Geneva and now a leading European intellectual, is a close friend of Ziegler and his family: He stuffed envelopes, made phone calls, and put up posters for Ziegler’s parliamentary election campaigns.21 This affection apparently is reciprocated. In 1993, Ramadan wrote an open letter protesting the staging of Mahomet—a play written in 1736 by the French philosopher Voltaire—in Geneva, on the grounds that it would offend the Muslim community. Ziegler’s wife, Erika Deuber Ziegler—a member of the communist-affiliated Swiss Party of Labor and then director of the cultural affairs department for the city of Geneva—promptly blocked the performance by withholding a 310,000 franc subsidy.22 Five years later, when his dissertation to the University of Geneva was rejected, Ramadan turned once again to Ziegler and his wife for assistance. Ramadan’s thesis recast the Muslim Brotherhood as a progressive social and religious movement and excised its teachings of jihad and misogyny, not to mention its support for Nazi Germany—a position that struck Ramadan’s two French supervisors as so untenable that they refused to award him a commendation.23 After Ziegler and his wife threatened a public scandal, however, a new jury of supervisors was formed—an exceedingly rare occurrence. With the removal of a few passages, Ramadan’s work was approved, giving him the academic credentials that have allowed his career to flourish.24
Most striking, however, is Ziegler’s role in co-founding, co-managing, and eventually winning the Muammar al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights.25 In April 1989, just a few months after Pan Am flight 103 was blown up by Libyan intelligence agents, killing all 259 people on board, Ziegler announced the prize’s creation. It was widely believed to be a transparent attempt to change Libya’s damaged international image as a terrorist state. The British newspaper The Independent, for instance, wrote:
Until now, the main international peace prize has been funded by a company which manufactures explosives for weapons. If we can believe reports from Geneva, the next big award in this field will be sponsored by a regime which specializes in giving them away. According to Jean Ziegler, the Socialist MP who is Switzerland’s answer to the late Abbie Hoffman, the $250,000 prize will bear the name of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, who has provided a $10 million fund for it... Mr. Ziegler said the award was designed to be the “Anti-Nobel Prize of the Third World.” The Swiss gadfly is the perfect person to represent such a foundation, as he has long been a professional Third Worlder.26
Switzerland’s L’Hebdo magazine also dedicated a feature-length story to the prize under the heading “The Nobel of Qaddafi: Libyan authorities create a new human rights prize—Jean Ziegler gets involved.” The article, which included a picture of Ziegler, reported that:
According to Jean Ziegler, “The Nobel Prize is a permanent humiliation for the Third World.” The timing couldn’t be better—just as Libya is trying to restore its image. With the interest from ten million dollars—placed in a Swiss bank—it plans to create an international institute for human rights (planned in Geneva) and two “counter-Nobel Prizes.” In mid-April, Jean Ziegler and ten “intellectuals and progressive fighters” thus found themselves in Tripoli to set the project on track.27
Judging by these articles, Ziegler was not only a member of the prize’s founding jury, but essentially its unofficial spokesman.28
The propagandist uses of the prize are frequent and diverse. First, Libya cites the very existence of the Qaddafi Prize as evidence of its commitment to human rights.29 Second, during the period when the West was attempting to contain the Qaddafi regime, the Libyan government used the prize money to fund supportive European organizations: For example, Centre Europe Tiers Monde (CETIM), an anti-Western non-governmental organization that opposes economic sanctions on Libya, was awarded the Qaddafi Prize—and its hefty remuneration—in 2000. Coincidentally or not, CETIM is based in Ziegler’s hometown of Geneva and has published his work and praised him for heroically standing up to the United States during his tenure as a Special Rapporteur.30 Third, and most ignominiously, Libya has used the prize to galvanize and unite prominent opponents of the United States. Among others, the award has been granted to Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and “the children of Iraq and victims of hegemony and embargoes.” Finally, the prize has celebrated prominent racists and antisemites. For example, Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader known for his black supremacist ideology and his frequent antisemitic statements, was awarded the Qaddafi Prize in 1996. Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Bin Muhammad—who told an October 2003 meeting of Islamic nations that Jews were responsible for all the world’s ills—was granted the prize in 2005. Other winners have included “the stone-throwing children of Occupied Palestine.”31
In 2002, thirteen “intellectual and literary personalities” were given the prize for their “thought and creativity.” 32 One of those chosen by the prize committee was Garaudy, the French Holocaust denier.33 Another was Ziegler himself. By this time, the Qaddafi prize was worth $750,000, and the Swiss newspaper Le Temps reported that Ziegler’s share of the purse would approach 100,000 Swiss francs.34
Even the media in Ziegler’s native Switzerland—usually so reverential toward its most famous activist—raised its eyebrows. Under the pressure of public opinion, Ziegler announced—from Tripoli, where he claimed to be on an unspecified UN mission—that he had turned down the prize “because of [his] responsibilities at the United Nations.”35 The next day, he added, “I have never accepted prizes and won’t start to do so now.”36

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