Jean Ziegler and diplomacy dont mix or do they?
Man with a mission
David Winch, UNOG
Controversy could be his middle name. Instead, he is called just Jean Ziegler, and the controversial part is usually tacked on for free by journalists, officials and other observers of the Swiss and UN political life.
Long a lightning-rod in the staid world of Swiss federal politics for his brash sorties he first made loud noises about Swiss bankers wartime misdeeds and his exhortations to students to take up the torch of activism, Ziegler is less well-known to English-speaking UN staff and non- Swiss Genevans.
The grandfatherly Ziegler looks the part of a retired sociology professor, seated in a cluttered student cafeteria late one recent afternoon as the place is closing down. But he shows few signs of mellowing. With a recent book, the fiery Les Nouveaux Maîtres du Monde, repeating his accusation that the UN is schizophrenic, along with his mandate from the same UN to look into the possi- bilities of the right to food, he remains a magnet for, uh, controversy.
His career, he observes ironically, has been built on the misery of others, punctuated by many visits to observe the developing societies of Africa and Latin America.
His observations about poverty and world events often get reactions. Following a pair of recent trips to Brazil as a UN rapporteur where he was first denounced by a Cabinet minister of the outgoing government for interference, then made a triumphant post- Lula appearance at the Porto Alegre peoples summit Ziegler found time for the headline-making suggestion that Switzerland should offer asylum to Saddam Hussein.
Diplomacy may never be the same.
Named as a Special Rapporteur in 2000 by the Commission on Human Rights, a role he sees as the last bulwark, an independent voice, he reflects that he is driven to denounce the existence of huge wealth alongside misery and inequalities and the daily massacres and chilling reality caused by deep poverty. He first drew the attention of major UN groups from the developing world for a didactic booklet, La Faim dans le Monde Expliqué à Mon Fils (Hunger in the World Explained to My Son), and soon he was nominated for the right-to-food post and accepted by the Commission.
The mandate of a rapporteur allows a broad range for improvisation, and Ziegler aims to promote the image of economic and social rights, which many critics call poor cousins to the more traditional civil rights.
These [economic rights] are the only instruments available, argues Ziegler. The critics are wrong; even a justice sys- tem is not free. It requires courts, a justice system, police, etc. Making food a right can be a spur to action, he con- tends. Economic rights can be used against privatizations advised by bodies like the IMF, he asserts, and in other ways prod Governments to move.
The job is to alert public opinion to tell things as they are, he asserts. To keep public confidence, there can be no secret dealings it must be transparent. Otherwise, it is not possible to rally civil society.
When you have this post, you have to be effective, thats what counts. The UN is the last line of defence for civilization. My loyalty is to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. It says, We the peoples, not We the States.
Zieglers agitation flows his view that The world as it is, is unacceptable. But perhaps in a single mellow touch, the veteran scholar concludes, citing a Wolof saying from Senegal: You may never taste the fruit of the trees you plant.
But he remains determined to spread those seeds far and wide.
David Winch (email@example.com) is an editor at UN Geneva.