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Anger with the Establishment: Jean Ziegler

Thomas Wagner | 28.08.2006 12:09 | WSF 2006 | Globalisation | World

Free trade is like heavyweight champion Mike Tyson climbing in the boxing ring against a half-starved unemployed from northeast Brazil.. Without social justice, the republic is worthless..If global agriculture can feed twelve billion today without problem, the world order of globalized predatory capitalism seems like a cruel absurdity.


Jean Ziegler, UN special ambassador for food, fights tenaciously for social human rights and criticizes the US government

By Thomas Wagner

[This article published in: Junge Welt, 7/21/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Many saw Jean Ziegler on the television screen in the last weeks. Ziegler, born in 1934, was formerly professor of sociology at the University of Geneva and the Sorbonne in Paris and US special ambassador for food. The author known worldwide comments on the frightening pictures of the successful documentary film “We Feed the World” on the terrible effects of a food industry corrupted by uncontrolled profit interests. The Francophile German-Swiss uses every opportunity to denounce poverty and hunger as man-made results of the capitalist world disorder and imperialist military expansion with an appropriately drastic choice of words. As a traveling lecturer, talk-show guest and member of the UN task force for humanitarian assistance in Iraq, his books are mocked in the review section of the Neue Zuricher Zeitung as “ambitious class struggle prose.” Therefore not surprisingly Ziegler often sees himself exposed to a defamatory campaign intent on silencing him as an annoying critic of domination.

While his social science colleagues Robert Cooper and Herfried Munkler strike up the praise of imperial rule to commend themselves as willing accessories to the rulers, Ziegler dissects the brutal world domination of corporations in his book “Empire of Shame” (2005) and thereby draws the anger of the worldwide capital oligarchy and its useful accomplices in Washington. Ziegler understands his books as interventions in the sense of enlightenment. “Informing, making transparent the practices of the rulers, is the first task of intellectuals “ (Empire, p.386). He follows the conception of his friend and compatriot from the Paris days, Jean Paul Sartre. Since deeds follow his bold words, Ziegler showed enormous vexation with the establishment in his time as university instructor and party politician in the sedate Swiss confederation.


Ten years ago Ziegler, a Geneva delegate in the Swiss National Council from 1967 to 1983 and again from 1987 to 1999, was exposed to vicious attacks. At this time, he was already regarded as a provocateur of the first rank after different published books and controversial statements. However the social critic sometimes mocked as a revolutionary romantic first gained the dubious reputation of being a “fowler of the nest” among a large number of his compatriots in 1997. What happened? At that time, Ziegler did not limit himself any more to insulting his fellow-parliamentarians at home as “cave-dwellers in the employ of the economy.” Rather he made public worldwide the extremely lucrative camaraderie of the Swiss banks with Nazi Germany and supported compensation demands in the billions for holocaust victims. What seemed to many Swiss as treason to the country was in truth an expression of Ziegler’s critical patriotism. In his book “Switzerland, Gold and the Dead” (1997), the widely-traveled sociologist of development depicted the multicultural traditions of his native republic in the most beautiful colors: “Switzerland is the four hundred year-product of a marvelous history of cooperation between peoples, cultures, religions and languages, a unique federation on the European continent” (Switzerland, p.295). While banks, government, parliament and large newspapers defended the popular national myth nearly unanimously, i.e. the defensive Swiss army deterred Nazi Germany in the Second World War from an attack on the Alps republic, Ziegler described the heads of the national bank and large private banks in Zurich, Bern and Basel as willing “receivers of stolen goods and Hitler’s creditors” (Ibid, p.25). “Switzerland escaped the Second World War thanks to energetic, cunning and organized complicity with the Third Reich. From 1940 to 1945, the Swiss economy was largely integrated in the pan-German economic realm” (Ibid). “Without Switzerland, the Second World War would have ended earlier and hundreds of thousands of persons would be alive” (Ibid, p.291). In a televised interview with Bavarian radio, Ziegler added: “In this book I reveal the origin of Swiss wealth. […] Hitler, this dreadful monster, was dependent on the world market at the height of his power because he had to buy raw materials for his army on the world market: diamonds, chromium, iron ore and so forth. However the Reich-mark was not convertible. Everything Hitler had was stolen gold: stolen in the concentration camps and in the central banks of eleven occupied countries. Nobody wanted this robbed gold – except for Swiss bankers. They accepted this gold. Every week SS-trucks went over the border to Bern. The robbed gold was unloaded in the national bank cellars. Every month Swiss bankers sent millions in convertible Swiss francs to the mass murderers in Berlin” (BR, 4/1/99). The reproach of treason raised by the Neue Zuricher Zeitung and other distinguished papers according to Ziegler represented a serious existential threat when he was legally accused of treason. “The German attorney Carla del Ponte filed a complaint by 21 large shareholders of the UBS, the largest European bank, because I allegedly supplied arguments to Jewish organizations. Swiss banks must now pay $1.2 billion compensation to Jewish organizations and holocaust survivors. Therefore I now face an accusation of treason..” (Ibid).


After surviving the legal attacks unmolested, Ziegler was in no way intimidated. Quite the contrary. When he had the opportunity in September 2000 to act as a special ambassador of the United Nations for food as a lobbyist for the poorest of the poor, he understood this task as a political mandate for the oppressed and since then has spoken out clearly against the dominant doctrine of free trade forced by the US, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank. “When Benin or Mali competes on the world market against Germany or Japan, they do not have the slightest chance. This is like the heavyweight world-champion Mike Tyson climbing in the boxing ring against a half-starved unemployed from northeast Brazil. Then the WTO says, the ring is the same for all of you. The gong strikes for everyone. The rules are the same for both of you. Now surrender to this battle of competition. What results is the destruction of the poor.” [2] Therefore Ziegler urges the international establishment of social, economic and cultural human rights. Democracy and political human rights alone are “completely insufficient” (ND, 10/15/2005). “Whoever watches his family die in sickness or poverty will hardly worry about freedom of thought and freedom of assembly. Without social justice, the republic is worthless” (Empire, p.23).


Ziegler refers his engagement for a world without hunger and violence to a traumatic experience that he had many years ago as a UN employee in Zaire, present-day Congo. During a reception for some businessmen in the Kinshasas Hotel Royal, the young Ziegler looked out the window and saw another reality. Starving children who tried to climb the barricades between them and the hotel died before his eyes. “Soldiers armed only with spears freed the dying children from the barbed wire in which they were caught by cutting their fingers with the blade of their spears. Then they threw the lifeless bodies on the street. At that moment, I took a vow never to stand on the side of the executioners” (ND, 10/15/2005). The personal experience of man-made misery and horror before dying children was also behind Ziegler’s support of European Union (EU) troops in the Congo. “Where these troops are, there are hospitals, sewage systems, vaccination campaigns and food. Only in this way do thousands have a chance of surviving” (Cicero, May 2006, p.38). Surprisingly Ziegler in this passage abstains from the necessary analysis of the dominant European interests in the rich mineral resources in the region and future consequences for the population of the African state.

A strong subjective impulse to obey the command of mutual assistance and alleviate the outrageous distress appeared when the leftist moralist in the state-supporting magazine Cicero urged the intervention of European troops and legitimated the imperial strategy of the most powerful capitalist states. Ziegler’s argument provides another example how an honest humanist engagement under the conditions of worldwide violence is hardly immune from being “ideologically co-opted into an effective rhetorical means to justify new imperialist wars.” [3]


Ziegler is more convincing as a sociologist when he rejects belief in the fateful necessity of hunger. If global agriculture can feed twelve billion today without problem, the “world order of globalized predatory capitalism” seems like a cruel absurdity. “It kills and kills without necessity” (Ibid). The advocate of a global responsibility ethic concludes: “A child who dies of hunger is murdered” (Ibid). A UN worker who refuses to be objectified as a tool of the rulers can be certain that his activities will be constantly observed and sanctioned especially any criticism of the so-called war on terror, the structural violence of the capitalist world system or the violation of international law by the US military. “In the basement of the White House, a special team of high officials and diplomats supervises the activities of all the important leaders of the United Nations and its special organizations” (Empire, p.58).

In the UN machine, Ziegler saw that most governments of the EU were hardly concerned about the condition and advancement of their people. On the other side, practically no higher official in the multi-layered system of the United Nations received any promotion without explicit approval of the White House” (Ibid, p.57). The US made the work of the UN special ambassador for food as hard as possible. The liberal Swiss weekly magazine “Weltwoche” reported how this happened in 2002 on the eve of the annual World Food Day on October 16. A young African journalist asked at the press conference: “What do you think of the Zambian president who refused to grow genetically-modified corn?” Jean Ziegler answered: “Africa has the right to question genetic engineering.” A week later, Zambian newspapers declared: Even the United Nations say, genetically engineered corn is poisoned. At the next UN General Assembly, America accused Ziegler of the worst crime that can be committed in the UN: “violation of the mandate.” Ziegler was made responsible for the starvation deaths in Africa as a doubter in the generosity of the American people! “Farmers must now pay patent-fees for all seed to the Monsanto firm,” Ziegler said (Weltwoche 14/03).

The United Nations accepted the report of its special ambassador by a large majority although Ziegler was sharply attacked by US ambassador Sichan Siv before the General Assembly in New York on November 1, 2002. A few months later, the Human Rights commission renewed his mandate against the vote of the US (see Empire, p.246). In 2004, the United States reproached Ziegler again for misusing his mandate and asked the UN Human Rights commission to censure him for his “irresponsible and unjustified statements and misleading polemics about conditions beyond his competence and expertise.” [4] Hardly deterred, Ziegler still criticizes the terror bombardments of the US on Afghanistan, the entanglement of leading US politicians, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and president George W. Bush in the intrigues of the oil industry and the “American surprise attack on the Iraqi oil fields” (Empire, p.46)…


UN Watch initiates the latest campaign against Ziegler. This time his contacts to the Libyan government are highlighted..

Questions about inconsistencies in Ziegler’s relations to Libya’s head of state may be legitimate. However Ziegler’s critics are really on the margin. They want to eliminate one prominent US critic. The title of the report on Ziegler’s activities published by UN Watch in October 2005 speaks volumes: “Jean Ziegler’s campaign against America. An analysis of the anti-American prejudice of the UN special ambassador for food.” [5] The main reproach is again: Ziegler misuses his mandate for a one-sided and extreme anti-American propaganda. [6] as when he denounced the economic boycott of Cuba by the US as a “blatant offense against the right to food and international law.” [7] During the first four years of his mandate, Ziegler criticized the US 34 times for its belligerent activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and its policy against Cuba. He praised the American resistance movement against racist laws and the Vietnam War as “great moments of humanity” (Ossietzky 10/2002). Ziegler counted himself in this American protest tradition when he formulated in his book “What Causes Hunger in the World?” (2002): “The murderous order of the world must be overthrown.”

Thomas Wagner
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