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Outspoken rights advisor draws criticism

Ziegler has also served as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Keystone

Jean Ziegler, a controversial Swiss legal expert and former food envoy, has been elected as an advisor to the United Nations main human rights body.

The nomination of the 73-year-old sociology professor had prompted criticism from non-governmental organisations and from a prominent United States politician.

Ziegler will serve his term alongside 17 other members of the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council and be eligible for re-election once.

Members were elected by secret ballot, and Ziegler – one of three western representatives – received an overwhelming majority of votes.

Committee members will work under the direction of the Human Rights Council, acting as a think-tank for the 47-nation body. The UN mandates that members have “recognised competence and experience in the field of human rights, high moral standing, and independence and impartiality”.

But critics have accused Ziegler of siding with authoritarian regimes and of abusing his office to pursue a political agenda.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, had appealed to the Swiss foreign ministry to withdraw the nomination.

“Ziegler has drawn criticism for his unyielding support of many of the world’s most vicious dictators,” her office said in a statement.


Ziegler, who denies critics’ charges, maintains he is committed to human rights.

“What I wish for is the furthering of social, economic and cultural human rights,” he said after the vote.

The foreign ministry has called his record “unstinting” and said it “attaches great importance to human rights and is pleased that a Swiss candidate will be able to contribute his expertise to the committee”.

“We are satisfied that Jean Ziegler is an excellent human rights specialist and an impartial expert,” Blaise Godet, the Swiss ambassador to the UN, told public television.

However, Ziegler critics don’t share the view.

“Anyone remotely familiar with his record knows that his appointment is a black day for human rights and a black day for the United Nations,” Hillel Neuer of UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO, told swissinfo.

A letter signed by politicians and advocates from 20 countries including Norway, Sweden, Canada and South Africa accuses Ziegler of having engaged in politics at the expense of his mandate as the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

They say that he has neglected to speak up for major emergencies, including in Burundi and Sierra Leone, while focusing the bulk of his pronouncements on criticising the US and Israel.

Authoritarian regimes

In 2006 Swiss newspaper the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported on connections between Ziegler and a human rights prize sponsored by Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafi.

Critics maintain that his connections to authoritarian regimes are incompatible with the role of human rights advocate. They note that Ziegler has lauded Cuba as a world model for feeding its population.

During a recent visit, the professor received publicity for refusing to meet political dissidents.

For his part, Ziegler says the criticism is politically motivated. He dismissed the Neue Zürcher Zeitung as “right-wing”.

The UN Human Rights Council was formed in 2006 to replace the much-maligned and highly politicised 53-member Commission on Human Rights.

The body had come under intense criticism after admitting – and having been led by – well known human rights violators.

And while critics of the council take little issue with controversial figures, they insist the new body must live up to a higher standard.

“There’s nothing wrong with controversy,” says Neuer, but adds that Ziegler’s election is symptomatic of a system he believes is already flawed.

“In many ways, he symbolises what the Human Rights Council has become.”

swissinfo, Justin Häne

The Human Rights Committee is a panel of independent experts monitoring civil and political rights.

The 18 members, who serve terms of up to three years, meet in Geneva or New York for three sessions per year.

The committee advises the UN Human Rights Council.

The 73-year-old Jean Ziegler is a former professor of social science and economics at the universities of Geneva and the Sorbonne in Paris.
He was a prominent member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party in the Swiss parliament until June 1991.

In 2000 he was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, a mandate that runs out at the end of March.

He has a reputation as an outspoken critic of globalisation.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR