Food For Thought

22 Jan 2007

In the month leading up to the 2006 edition of ‘Terra Madre – World Meeting of Food Communities’, I met with Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. A sociologist and former member of the Swiss parliament, Ziegler is a perceptive intellectual who is now examining the issue of world hunger and therefore globalization. His many books—including Switzerland, the Gold, and the Dead (Harcourt, 1998), The Masters of Crime, in French (Seuil, 1998), Hunger in the World Explained to My Son, in French (Seuil, 1999), The New Masters of the World, in French (Fayard, 2002), Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food, (Georgetown University Press, 2005) and The Empire of Shame, (in French, Fayard, 2005)—always contain hard-hitting and well-documented criticism of politics and international financial systems.

I was looking forward to meeting him: I was curious to find out how he reconciles his institutional position with his role as a writer exposing and denouncing perceived wrongdoing, and also if he sees the large international bodies dealing with hunger, food and ‘development’ as being able to offer real prospects for the future.

‘I’d like to hear about your experience working within an organization such as the UN. How do you feel about your position of Special Rapporteur? Do you think that you can help to bring about real changes?’

Jean Ziegler: ‘Many of my activist friends think I am wasting my time and often voice their opinions. But you need to remember that my mandate does not fall within the bureaucratic structure typical of a large international organization such as the UN. I am directly appointed by the Secretary General. I have been selected for my role as an intellectual and am completely independent—I do not have the status of a UN functionary. The bureaucracy is at my service, I use it when I go on missions to foreign countries, but I’m not part of the real bureaucracy. I am one of 42 rapporteurs: most deal with a particular country with specific problems, usually involving the monitoring of conflicts—while there are only a few of us with responsibility for ‘issues’: torture, the right to health, the right to education, the right to food. We have extrajudiciary executive powers.’

‘Could you tell me what your job more specifically involves?’

JZ: ‘I have to formulate the civil and political right to food. As a basis we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948: all the 192 states that ratified it have to respect these rights. In 1992, two years after the fall of communism, the then Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Gali, convened the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna to update the charter. After the disappearance of the USSR he understood that it was necessary to establish a new basis for protecting civil, social and cultural rights in a world where globalized capitalism would prevail. In accordance with the old Communist question which Bertold Brecht neatly summarized in the statement ‘an electoral mandate does not lessen hunger’, it was realized that the issue of ‘hunger’ needed to be brought into the new directives. I was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur for the first of the reforms addressing the issues of food and water.’

‘And what specific tasks does this entail?’

JZ: ‘First of all I have to formulate the concept and the legal framework for this new right. I make periodic reports to the Commission for Human Rights and the General Assembly, where I can add recommendations to be implemented.
Secondly, the General Assembly and the Security Council can send me on missions to countries where it is thought there are violations of the right to food. I recently went to Lebanon and have also been to Darfur. When I return I make reports and give indications of what to do.
The third task is the most complicated: in places where the United Nations has not received the funding required to carry out planned initiatives, I go to check the situation and if necessary I make an appeal to member states to provide the proper resources. For example, on one occasion 98 million dollars were budgeted for humanitarian interventions in the Horn of Africa but only 32 were received. This was an extremely serious situation and meant many people would die. I had to make an urgent appeal to member states for aid.’

‘What progress has there been in the way countries around the world have reacted to the right to food?’

JZ: ‘The progress has been modest but things have been achieved. In 1994 South Africa included the right to food in its new constitution and President Mandela created a national commission for human rights, with a tribunal that will receive complaints from South Africans. This is very useful—for example it enabled us to win a very delicate dispute over the privatization of water in Johannesburg, which would have denied water to anyone who couldn’t pay. The poorest women turned to this body and were then able to carry out all the necessary legal steps to win their case. The matter was concluded in May this year.’

‘Does your remit also include questions involving seeds? I feel this is one of the key issues for the future, irrespective of the debate surrounding GMOs. Given the current level of intrusion by agribusiness with their hybrids and royalties, small farmers around the world no longer have any certainty that they will have the right to freely use their own seeds. Seeds are the crucial basis of traditional agriculture and it is not right that only a few interests should control them, selling them to small farmers and causing serious economic problems which in some cases has even driven people to suicide. This situation has prompted the idea that Terra Madre should draw up a document on the right to the ownership and transfer of seeds, it is a fundamental right. Have you taken action on this issue?’

JZ: ‘An example is four years ago when we were involved in a dispute in Zambia. Drought had caused terrible damage in Angola, Zambia and Botswana, and the World Food Program distributed US corn as humanitarian aid. The United States supplies 65% of all the food that passes through the World Food Program. These donations are the surpluses produced as a result of substantial government subsidies given to farmers each year. The president of Zambia, concerned that the corn might be genetically modified, refused the shipment of humanitarian aid. This triggered a heated debate. All I did was to state at the United Nations that it was legitimate for the Zambian President to turn down the aid. This was because the precautionary principle operated in Europe and it seemed logical to me that if the Italian Prime Minister or French President had the right to check and ban GMOs, then an African president could exercise the same right. The Americans attacked me strongly for my statement, also on a personal level, but in the end a majority of the General Assembly established that my recommendation was legitimate and we reached a compromise for processing the cornflour to avoid contamination.’

‘There are now many people who are strongly critical of international bodies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization. These bodies were created as part of a system of international capital and promote a concept of development that many people feel is not suitable for poor countries, as it is a mirror of ‘Western’ capitalism. I think that we have reached an impasse with these instruments, they do not have a beneficial effect and their inappropriate interventions frequently create even greater problems.’

JZ: ‘The real problem is that neoliberalism believes that the global market is a totally independent entity functioning according to the laws of nature. So when difficult situations are created, people say that ‘the global market has decided and we can’t do anything about it’. In fact socialists also believe in this law of the superiority of the market, the invisible hand. If we want to bring about a change it will be necessary to have a radical rethink and return to alternative, more human values.’

‘What and who will be responsible for promoting these values?’

JZ: ‘The new international civil society, a society opposed to the privatization of the world. Society can have an incredible strength. In March 2003 I was in the office of Rome’s mayor, Walter Veltroni, and from the windows we could see the demonstration against the war in Iraq. I said to Veltroni: ‘The Italian Left is impressive, you have managed to mobilize a million people!’ And Veltroni replied: ‘What do you mean? We haven’t done anything, this mobilization is a moral imperative’. On that day a million Italians simply said no to a war for oil, and I was surprised at this show of civil strength. If there is going to be a change, it will be through a moral demand from ordinary people, an insurrection of the conscience. Marx said that you notice a revolution by feeling the grass grow under your feet, and I am sure that it is beginning to happen, you can feel a historic shift.’

‘Do you believe in what is called sustainable development? I increasingly feel that it is an oxymoron, because development, as it is understood in the rich West, is no longer sustainable from any point of view and you cannot expect countries with greater problems to follow an approach governed by rules that do not apply to them.’

JZ: ‘If we look at how the International Monetary Fund functions, it isn’t a principle of one man (state) one vote, but a system where votes are weighted according to the wealth of the country: i.e. a vote for each dollar. Brazil has a frightening debt of billions of dollars owed to the fund (the second highest debt of all the countries represented in the UN General Assembly). When Lula came to power on January 1, 2003, he staked a lot on mass popular mobilization to implement the Zero Hunger Program, which aimed to end hunger for 200 million Brazilians. Five years later the program is only progressing slowly. There is just one reason for this: there isn’t enough money to support it. Although the Brazilian economy is now on a growth track, the problem is that 90% of exports have to be used to pay the debt interest. Brazil needs a moratorium for at least five years. Italy, one of the richest countries in the world, has a significant weight within the IMF in terms of votes. If there was strong popular mobilization within the country, it could allow the Italian government to vote against the banks and in favor of a moratorium. The same thing is possible for the rest of Europe, which together has a significant number of votes.’

‘We again see a call for popular mobilization. But it is difficult to make people aware of these issues. I feel that Terra Madre could be a vehicle for creating this sort of strong appeal.’

JZ: ‘There could be opposition to the WTO. For example, in a move causing irreparable damage, it has imposed the privatization of agricultural services on the poorest countries of the world. Imagine the effect it has on the lives of farmers in some African countries when the public veterinary services—that used to offer vaccines and visits at an affordable cost for everyone— are privatized.’

‘Speaking of the WTO, what do you think about the recent failure of the Doha Round?’

JZ: ‘The recent negotiations collapsed over agricultural issues, the longstanding question of European and North American subsidies to farmers in support of their produce and exports. When you now walk through any African market—such as in Dakar, one of the largest in Western Africa—you can buy fruit and vegetables from Italy, Portugal or other European countries at knockdown prices. And 2 km away you have peasant farmers working 15 hours a day—helped by their children (who probably don’t go to school for this reason)—who haven’t the slightest hope of selling the fruit of their labor for these low prices. And this is a problem for all African countries. We should remember that their economies mainly depend on agriculture. There needs to be forceful social mobilization to pressurize European governments to finally put a stop to all subsidies given to agricultural exports. It is the only way to give African countries a chance. It would not solve other problems—it would not eliminate drought, civil wars or disease, but it would give people the chance to eat. If we do not stop the system of subsidies we can be 100% certain that these countries will never be self-sufficient in food.’

First printed in La Stampa on October 2, 2006

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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