U.N. Official Slammed for Criticism of Israel

By Marc Perelman

Published December 09, 2005, issue of December 09, 2005.
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A key player in Swiss Holocaust restitution battles is being criticized by the American Jewish Committee, which, because of his virulent criticism of Israel and the United States, is urging the United Nations to oust him from his position as a special rapporteur on the right to food.

Jean Ziegler, a left-leaning Swiss intellectual active in the effort to restitute Swiss bank accounts, “has consistently abused his U.N. position to single out and demonize particular countries — the United States and Israel — to advance his own extreme political views, rather than to advance the right to food,” according to a report by U.N. Watch, the AJCommittee’s Geneva-based arm.

Ziegler, a lawyer and sociology professor sometimes dubbed “Switzerland’s Noam Chomsky,” called the criticisms “absolutely horrifying.” While he acknowledged his left-leaning affiliations and his clear opposition to Israel’s West Bank policies and the war in Iraq, he forcefully denied overstepping his mandate, which ends in April 2006.

Ziegler is one of several special rapporteurs appointed by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to investigate country-specific or thematic issues. Both the rapporteur system and the commission, whose rotating membership often includes notorious human-rights violators, have come under fire from Israel and America for twisting their agenda for political purposes.

The criticisms have prompted U.N. member states to agree to a comprehensive reform package that replaces the commission with a more balanced human rights council. A task force is negotiating the details of such a body. The outcome of the talks and their effect on the special rapporteur system is unclear. The negotiations are part of a current showdown between the United States and other member states over a wider package of reforms at the U.N.

Ziegler said that the rapporteur system’s future was uncertain. He stressed that his U.N. position was secondary to his academic career. Nominated by Cuba and Libya, he was appointed in 2000 and reappointed in 2003.

U.N. Watch has called on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which has authority over the special rapporteurs, to remove Ziegler. It related its criticisms to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. At the very least, U.N. Watch officials said, Annan should make sure that Ziegler will not be reappointed in another capacity.

The group has sent letters to Annan and several members of the U.S. Congress detailing allegations against Ziegler, who earned praise from Jewish groups in the late 1990s for his advocacy against Swiss banks because of their role in hiding Holocaust assets. In the years since, however, Ziegler has become what Israel and its supporters denounce as a vivid illustration of the U.N.’s biased and unaccountable nature.

In its report, U.N. Watch claimed that during the first four years of Ziegler’s mandate, he abused his position by criticizing the United States on 34 occasions regarding its military operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq. During the same period, he criticized only two out of the 17 countries that the U.N. deems to suffer from a man-made food emergency. Ziegler has called the United States an “imperialist dictatorship” and President Bush “the Pinochet who sits in the White House.” He has accused the United States of committing “genocide” in Cuba and of blessing Israel’s “state terror” and “war crimes.”

Ziegler helped create the Moammar Gaddafi Human Rights Prize in 1989, shortly after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 the previous year. He himself earned the prize in 2002, although he refused it because of his U.N. position. Others who have won include French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy. While Ziegler condemned the 9/11 attacks, he opposed the war in Afghanistan, couching his stance as a food issue by arguing that aerial food drops by the United States and its allies were not permitted by international law — a position he also maintains with regard to the Iraq War. Ziegler has America’s boycott of Cuba as a violation of the right to food, even claiming that the United States was committing “genocide” in Cuba. The United States and Australia were the only two countries that opposed Ziegler’s reappointment to a second term in 2003.

That year, he issued a report following a visit to the Palestinian territories in which he called the situation “catastrophic” and blamed most food-related violations on the Israeli military.

U.N. Watch also wrote that Ziegler penned a letter on U.N. stationery in May 2004 to the American company Caterpillar, urging the firm not to do business in Israel in order to bolster an anti-Israel boycott campaign. He also urged the European Union to suspend its trade accord with Israel. As a result, the group formally asked the chairman of the human rights commission to dismiss Ziegler for abuse of mandate because of his unfair singling out of Israel.

In October, U.N. Watch issued a scathing report titled “Blind to Burundi,” noting that despite the African country’s huge malnutrition problems, Ziegler had not uttered a word on its situation in his first four years in office. However, he had repeatedly weighed in on the situation in the Palestinian territories.

This year, Ziegler published “The Empire of Shame,” a book attacking America. In March he authored a report claiming that malnutrition rates among children under 5 in Iraq had almost doubled since the U.S. invasion, rising to almost 8%. As a result of his anti-U.S. stance, the United States was the only country to vote against a resolution on the right to food at the Human Rights Commission.

In July, he told a crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Geneva that Gaza was “an immense concentration camp” and added that it was a good thing that the “guards” were about to leave. This elicited a rare rebuke from a spokesman for Annan and from human rights commissioner Louise Arbour.

Ziegler countered that he was acting in his personal capacity and was actually quoting an Israeli scholar when he made the remarks. He described as “absurd and patently false” the accusation that he was comparing Israelis to Nazis. He recalled his role in the enactment of a Swiss law criminalizing antisemitic and racist statements.

In August, 70 members of the House wrote Annan. They thanked him for his condemnation of Ziegler, but also urged him to pressure the chairman of the Human Rights Commission to remove the Swiss professor as a way to send a strong message about the U.N.’s commitment to root out antisemitism.

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