Jean Ziegler : « I want to contribute to the awakening of the conscience of the West »


by Agnès Rousseaux, Alexandro Rosinha

Jean Ziegler is a rebel. After having been the Special Rapporteur to the United Nations for the Right to Food from 2000 to 2008, he is now the vice-president of the Advisory Council on Human Rights. He has published “Hatred of the West”, an essay that analyzes the claims of the South, tired of being dominated and exploited by the North. With his usual frankness, Ziegler calls for a radical rethinking of what he calls “neoliberal obscurantism.”

This article was initially published in french here. The text is a transcription of a video interview.

Basta! : You talk in your book of schizophrenia in the West. The European Union defends the right to food while also organizing the dumping of agricultural products through its export subsidies. The crisis we are currently experiencing has shown how it is possible to raise billions of euros to save banks, while money is missing when it comes to solving the problem of hunger. Doesn’t this crisis help to highlight the hypocrisy of the West, and thus further weaken its credibility in what we call ‘the South’ (the poor and so-called developing nations)?

Jean Ziegler  [1] : On the one hand, there is real suffering in the West. Beginning last August [of 2008], every day in the United States 10,000 families are evicted from their homes, for example. Thousands and thousands of pension funds traded in the U.S. went up in smoke, generating anxiety for the future. Here in Europe unemployment rises, state tax revenues are decreasing, social injustice and employment insecurity are progressing very rapidly. Thus, in the West, we must realize, there is real suffering as a result of this crisis - suffering which we cannot minimize.

But, obviously, the most appalling tragedy is taking place in the 122 countries of ‘the South’ [the developing nations]. There are 6.3 billion human beings on the Earth. 4.8 billion, that is to say two thirds, live in one of the 122 countries of the Southern Hemisphere. Every five seconds a child under 10 dies from hunger. 100,000 people die each day from hunger or its immediate aftermath. 923 million people, almost one in six people on the planet, are permanently and seriously undernourished, mutilated, rendered invalid by hunger and undernourishment [2]. This slaughter will increase.

There is an absolute scandal we have to be aware of: the fact that the West, which dominates the world’s capitalist system, finds the means to raise hundreds of billions of dollars to save, to stabilize its financial markets and banks, but cannot find the little money it would take to eradicate hunger in the world. I’ll give you an example: On October 12, 2008, the Heads of State of 15 countries that share the Euro, the 27 countries that make up the European Union, got together under the chairmanship of Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace in Paris. In 3 hours and 30 minutes, they released 1.7 trillion dollars to improve the European banks’ lending capacity and to raise the level of auto-financing for those banks from 3 to 5%. The fact is that the UN has said that eradicating world hunger, eliminating the massacre of hunger, would cost 21 billion dollars over five years, less than one percent of the amount given to the banks. (emphasis by translator)

At the UN I very often watch what is called “pledging conferences”, that is to say the meetings where the World Food Programme, UNICEF, FAO, etc. come with their programs, meet with ambassadors of countries in distress and say: “For Darfur, we have so many millions for the next three months fur the purpose of, for instance, keeping 2.2 million people alive, who are camped in 17 camps - all due to the terrible genocide which has been going on for 3 years in western Sudan. And very regularly, since the beginning of the crisis, Western ambassadors have given the reply:”We have no money."

Result: Even as we speak, in Darfur, the World Food Programme (WFP) is distributing rations to adults of 1,500 calories a day, while the subsistence minimum is 2200 calories per day. The UN, lacking money, simply for lack of money, can not properly feed - according to international law, to what the international conventions for refugees would require - the 2.2 million adults and children who are herded into these camps, the displaced people in Darfur or in other refugee camps in Chad and the Central African Republic.

There is a daily massacre of hunger, which is met by all Western governments with an ice cold sense of normalcy, in full view of everyone. Western public opinion says "you have no money, so unfortunately these people will die. They die, it is dramatic, but true. And so we find billions and billions of dollars, 1700 000 000 000, released in 3 hours and 30 minutes on a Sunday afternoon at the Elysée Palace last October 12, for interbank lending, that is to say, to make up a bit for the appalling evil that these predators and speculators, these criminal handlers of the international capital, have imposed on the economic system of our country. So it’s totally absurd, and we need an insurrection, a world-wide awakening of people’s conscience.

The latest FAO report, dated November 2008 shows an increase in the number of people who are starving or severely undernourished. They currently count close to one billion. It seems that in our society, these figures no longer cause any reaction. What is there today that can still arouse real indignation?

There is a problem: it is structural violence. Jean-Paul Sartre said: “To love people, we must truly detest the things that oppress them.” The children of Darfur, Niger, Bangladesh and Gaza - since this is the appalling devastation caused by the Israelis against the civilian population of Gaza, in total disregard of the European Union, with the blessing of the new President Obama who was taken for an apostle of international morality – it is true that these children do not die on Piccadilly Circus, in Berlin or on the Champs-Elysées. They are not visible. And the French president, the German chancellor, or the British prime minister merely go on dealing with their constituents. This is normal in a democracy: their purpose is to stabilize the banks, they take care to bail out their automobile industries etc. These are not voters, children dying of hunger in Mongolia, in Bangladesh and Guatemala. They do not count politically in this system of structural violence.

What is left? It is the moral imperative that is inside us, in each one of us. France is a very old and living democracy which has flaws, but the flow of information, human rights, freedom of expression and organization are fully guaranteed. However, in a democracy, there is no excuse for doing nothing. There is no such thing as inability to act in a democracy. It is the responsibility of the civil society, of citizens, of the inhabitants of these democracies, to rise up and to use all the democratic means we have - and they are huge in its ways: elections, demonstrations.

There exists a public check on the governments, on behalf of those children who die of hunger in the other half of the world, and whom we represent, not in terms of one ideology or another, but according to the categorical imperative that is inside each one of us, to insist on the cancellation of Third World debts, the end of agricultural dumping by the European Union on African agricultural markets, the end of agro-fuels [burning food to make fuel for cars while children are dying of hunger], ending market speculation, with futures on agricultural commodities. We are the ones who can enforce this. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, said: “The inhumanity imposed on others destroys the humanity in me.” It is perfectly obvious.

Faced with these facts, what do we do? You said you do not believe in “the conversion of the powerful.” From January 27 to February 1, 2009 the World Social Forum is taking place in Belém in Brazil. What can we expect? Where can any change come from?

I think there is a new historical factor, the global civil society, which is the brotherhood of the night. You know, it started in Seattle, exactly 10 years ago. For the first time the World Trade Organization (WTO) was prevented from convening. Its objective was to re-liberalize, privatize, economically disarm the peoples of the Third World, according to the logic of globalized financial capital. And in Seattle on the Pacific coast of the United States, trade unions, NGOs and churches, for the first time, thousands and thousands of activists occupied the city. And the World Trade Organization convention could not take place.

Starting with Seattle, on the Pacific coast of the United States, and during the ten years that separate it from Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon river, which will host the next World Social Forum - an extraordinary revival of the civil society has taken place. Through all the Social Forums, the first one at Porto Alegre, and then the Social Forums that have been held on other continents, Mumbai, Nairobi, etc., we are now getting united. And the Brazilian comrades’ preparatory committee told me that the problem is the extraordinary number of participants in Belém. More than 200,000 people have registered, representing more than 8000 movements, trade unions, multiple social organizations, ranging from the Via Campesina movement for the landless, to the movement of resistance to the dictatorship of the global financial capital. (emphasis by translator)

Last year, the 500 largest private transcontinental companies controlled 52% of the gross world product, that is to say, all goods, services, patents, capital, in one year -across the globe. The dictatorship of the financial capital has now found its retaliation, its opponent, in the World Social Forum, which will be held this time in Belém. Karl Marx said: “The revolutionary should be able to hear the grass grow.” And beyond parties, beyond the norms of the individual states, the Forum is a force of opposition to the dictatorship of capital, altogether exceptional and mysterious.

You mention in your book the example of Bolivia, which illustrates the possibility of profound changes in the current system. You also mention the revival beginning in 2006 of the Non-Aligned Movement, which now has the capacity to influence international decisions. Can these developments help overcome the hurdles that originate from this hatred of the West and the issue of awakening memories, particularly in the functioning of the United Nations?

In my book, "Hatred of the West”, there is a chapter on the intricacies of awakening memories in the post-colonial world. Something very mysterious is happening now and it is a resurgence of memories. I am a professor of sociology, and within the study of sociology, possibly the most mysterious and least understandable object of study, is the collective memory. For example, the Holocaust, the terrible genocide against the Jewish people made by the monster Nazis took three generations to emerge into the collective consciousness.

Elie Wiesel is the author of a theory about the intricacies of memory on the delays that it takes for memories to emerge, and this theory is pretty convincing. When something absolutely horrible, totally unacceptable happens to someone, individually or collectively, to a people or a person, our consciousness can not take it in, can not conceptualize. Our reason is powerless. And this event is buried deep within the being, and he does not speak about it. On the return of people from the concentration camps to Hotel Lutetia in Paris, these people were condemned to silence. They were unable to speak. Then comes the second generation, the children who know there is a family secret, but as the previous generation does not speak, they do not know. And it is only the third or fourth generation that is capable of letting these memories rise to the surface of their consciousness, to conceptualize, to organize through reason, through awareness, this buried memory.

This is happening today with people of the South, the former colonies. The thing that is rising to the surface is the horror of slavery, it is the horror of colonization, the suffering. It’s very strange. Slavery lasted 350 years, a mass deportation of 42 million Africans across the Southern Atlantic Ocean in a triangular trade. The last country to abolish slavery was Brazil in 1888. As for the horrors of the colonial era, these ended in the sixties, for most countries around the middle of the past century, the twentieth century. India became independent in 1947, African countries mostly in the sixties except for South Africa which became independent in 1994. So the horror was also experienced for generations and generations in the past.

And it is now that this awareness of past cruelties has surfaced that the Non-Aligned Movement is being formed [3]. The 127 Non-Aligned nations, the Bandung Conference of 1955: there was silence for a very long time, and now the Non-Aligned nations dominate the UN General Assembly. The OIC, the Organization of Islamic Conference (53 Muslim countries), which is in the midst of this renaissance, this resurgence of memory [of past domination], which becomes a social riposte, a political force. It’s very very mysterious.

The title of my book may seem offensive. There have been many discussions with the publishers: Should it remain the "Hatred of the West”? It’s shocking. Well, there is a pathological hatred which must be eliminated immediately - Al Qaeda, terrorism, etc., incidentally the very negation of the Koran, which is a book of love: terrorism that kills children does exactly the opposite even if it claims to have its roots in the Muslim faith. This pathology - and the state terrorism of Israel is rooted in the same kind of fanaticism – this state or individual terrorism is a pathology that has to be combated. It can find no excuse or any mitigating circumstances.

But there is, and that’s why my book is a book of hope, a resurgence of awareness of past exploitation [4], a reasoned hatred of the West, which rejects the dictatorship of financial capital, which demands reparation and repentance from the West – which of course responds with the most complete blindness - and this hatred becomes a political force.

Example: Bolivia. After 500 years of genocide, massacres, oppression, of being silenced, for the first time in 500 years, an Indian, Evo Morales Ayma, a real Amero-Indian, a coca farmer from Yungas (a tropical department situated north of la Paz), with a magnificent Aymara head, and not an urban intellectual who uses the ethnic argument, is elected President (December 18, 2005). And in six months, supported by this wonderful identity movement, las Almas (the Souls), which has become a political force, he regains control over the second largest oil wealth in Latin America. He has imposed a totally new distribution and sharing of profits on Shell, Repsol, British Gas, Texaco. Until then, the Bolivian state received 5% and foreign companies 95%. Today, foreign companies get 18% and the Bolivian State gets 82%.

With the billions that flow into the treasury of Bolivia, the great campaigns are starting up against poverty, hunger, illiteracy, epidemics, polluted water. And what was until now the material darkness of the vast destitute majority of the 10 million Bolivians is changing radically. They have access to a dignified life. It is the resurgence of an awareness of past exploitation that has made this possible, and it definitely gives reason for hope. And I also hope the same thing will happen in many other countries.

As the Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food for the United Nations, now a member of the Consultative Council of Human Rights, you are a tireless advocate for oppressed peoples. You develop a severe critique of capitalism and the “extraordinary blindness” of the West. Despite the multiple crises and the deterioration of the situation, what drives you and makes you still hope that another world is possible?

Georges Bernanos [5] said: “God has no other hands than ours.” Either we change this absurd and bruised world, or nobody will. I am a privileged among the privileged citizens of the Republic of Geneva [6], white, from a middle class family, Calvinist, I always ate my fill, I have a university education – this incredible privilege, generally in the West and in democracies where free speech is possible or access to information is possible. For eight years I was a United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and now I am on the Advisory Committee for the Council of Human Rights.

When we have seen what I have seen, when we see the horror of what is euphemistically called underdevelopment, but is in fact the rule, “the enslavement, exploitation imposed by the Financial capital” on the peoples of the South mainly, we can not - it’s physiologically and psychologically impossible - return home to Geneva and say “listen, no, I saw what I saw, but hey, I am going to forget what I have seen.” It is not possible. That’s why this book wants to be a weapon and should help in a small way in awakening the consciousness of people in the West that we need so urgently.

Interview by Agnès Rousseaux (Basta!)

Translated by Siv O’Neall for Axis of Logic

Vidéo here by Alexandro Rosinha

Recommended reading : Jean Ziegler’s latest book “Hatred of the West” (La Haine de l’Occident - Albin Michel, October, 2008)


[1Jean Ziegler, one of the leading proponents in the world today for justice and the right to food and human dignity for all people, reaches out in particular to the poverty-stricken people in the South. He has been leading a passionate fight over the past few decades against the appalling callousness and blindness of the West, the greed of multinational corporations that run the global financial system. Their only interest is squeezing out maximum profit at the expense of the millions of starving people in the world.

[2“There were 923 million malnourished people in the world in 2007, an increase of 80 million since 1990, despite the fact that the world already produces enough food to feed everyone - 6 billion people [today more than 6.6 billion] - and could feed the double - 12 billion people” (Source : Wikipedia)

[3The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is an intergovernmental organization of states considering themselves not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc. The movement is largely the brainchild of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, president of Egypt Gamal Abdul Nasser and Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito. It was founded in Belgrade (1961); as of 2009, it has 118 members and 17 observer countries. The purpose of the organisation as stated in the Havana Declaration of 1979 is to ensure “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries” in their “struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc politics.” They represent nearly two-thirds of the United Nations’s members and 55% of the world population, particularly countries considered to be developing or part of the third world… A significant milestone in the development of the Non-aligned movement was the 1955 Bandung Conference, a conference of Asian and African states hosted by Indonesian president Sukarno.

[4“résurgence mémorielle” is the term used consistently by Jean Ziegler – actually impossible to translate literally.

[5Georges Bernanos, a non-conformist Catholic French novelist and political writer (1888 – 1948), author of “The Diary of a Country Priest” (Le journal d’un curé de campagne) He started out as a reactionary but during the Spanish war he made a turnaround, supporting the side of the Republicans. During the second World War, he forcefully backed up Charles de Gaulle and the Resistance movement.

[6La République de Genève - 1535-1791