For the first time ever a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has recommended that debt payments by developing countries be suspended. ‘The right to food and water must come before debt payments.’
At the September gathering of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the UN Special Rapporteur Jan Ziegler made a case for the principle of giving priority to socio-economic rights rather than to contractual obligations such as the payment of debts. Ziegler: ‘I came up with the idea after talking to the new Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula). Brazil is one of the world’s largest food exporters, especially in terms of grain, but according to the Bishop’s Conference 41 million Brazilians suffer from serious malnutrition. With a debt of 230 billion dollars, Brazil is the fourth largest debtor in the world. More than 52% of the GNP is spent paying off the debt. Consequently, it is impossible for Lula to undertake anything or to bring about reforms.’
‘The repayment of foreign debts is an obligation. But my mandate states that the right to food and water should be respected above all other obligations. Now you can propose all sorts of reforms, such as minimum wages and the abolishment of slavery and child labour, but it all costs a huge amount of money. My proposal is to subtract this amount from the foreign debt.’
The Swiss Food Rapporteur Ziegler is a controversial figure. In his latest book ‘Les Nouveaux Maîtres du Monde (et ceux qui leur résistent)’ (The New Masters of the World (and those that resist them)) he brands the WTO, IMF and the World bank as ‘international figureheads of neo-liberalism’ and ‘Riders of the Apocalypse’. In the eyes of these ‘predators of world capitalism’ Ziegler is the personification of anti-globalism. He was already known as a provacateur par excellence before he was appointed to his post in 2000. The American UN representative described Ziegler’s statements as ‘irresponsible, without foundation, unreasonable and biased.’
It was only in 1993 that the UN member states considered socio-economic rights to be inalienable and universal. It was only seven years later, in 2000, that the UN Human Rights commission finally took the first concrete step. ‘[They] appointed me Rapporteur, much to everyone’s surprise… My mandate comprises three main tasks: developing the legal basis for this right, proposing legal reforms, and reporting twice a year to the UN General Meeting and the Human Rights Commission.’
‘Even now 100,000 people die every day as a result of food shortages or related illnesses. Every seven seconds a child dies of malnutrition; in 2001 – according to statistics – 826 million people suffered from extreme malnutrition, while, according to the World Food report, we are capable of feeding 12 billion people annually. One can, therefore, only conclude that every child that dies of starvation is a victim of murder. Hunger is a manmade massacre for which man is responsible. That is my starting point.’
‘It is tough going. I am constantly a victim of heavy criticism. From the IMF and the World Bank. The Americans, Australians and others are against the principle of the Right to Food. And they don’t mean it cynically. They don’t say: to hell with the rest of mankind. No, their views have solid theoretical foundations. Their main argument is that a sack of rice is merchandise just like any other product. But if distribution comes to a halt or ceases to function – just look at the famine in Chad, Bangladesh, Zambia or Ethiopia – then the international community has a moral obligation to help. This is what happens.’
Ziegler consciously continues to provoke reactions. His ‘latest theories’ will undoubtedly meet with a great deal of opposition. This has not prevented the UN from extending his mandate by three years due to the intercession of Cuba. During a debate in Geneva in June, the United States were alone in their rejection. 51 votes for, one against and one abstention – Ziegler has the overrepresentation of non-western countries in the UN to thank for the result.
Adapted with permission from Wordt Vervolgd (To be Continued), the Dutch edition of Amnesty International’s monthly magazine (September 2003). For more information also see Jean Ziegler’s ‘Les Nouveaux Maîtres du Monde (et ceux qui leur résistent’ (Fayard, 2002) and his UN reports at www.unhchr.ch.