The mystery of memory Interview with Jean Ziegler, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Member of the UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee, and author of the new bestselling book “La Haine de l’Occident” (“The Hatred of the West”), Paris, 2008

Jean Ziegler is a man of many facets. Although most of us know him for his outspoken and forthright words denouncing human rights violations and other unfair treatment, either in his capacity as former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food or as a Member of the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council, we should not forget that he is also a celebrated social scientist and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the Universities of Geneva and Paris. Professor Ziegler has on more than one occasion pointed an accusing finger at trends in our societies. Most recently, he has looked at an issue that many might find surprising: the revolt by developing countries about all the injustices that they have had to endure from the Western world. It comes at a time when the dominator is being challenged by the dominated. And this is what is happening now, according to Professor Ziegler in his latest book, La Haine de l’Occident, just published by the French publishers Albin Michel.
We had the opportunity of meeting Professor Ziegler on a wet and cold winter day in Geneva …
Q: Professor Ziegler, you say that we are living in an epoch of the return of memories. Could you explain this further?
It is something rather curious; one could call it the mystery of the memory. For instance, when something terrible happens to a people the shock is so violent that people’s conscience cannot accept it, and their mind banishes it to the very profound depths of their subconscious. Those who have lived through these horrors are unable to talk about it. Their children of the second generation know that something terrible happened, but it remains a kind of family secret. It’s not until the third generation that they are capable of talking about it and analysing it, and that is when the memory becomes alive again.
For instance, as Elie Wiesel shows, the Shoah took almost two generations before it started to become really known in all the horrible, tragic dimensions. In my book I mention the experience of Marguerite Duras who had said that in Paris the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps were received and treated by the Red Cross, but nobody wanted to listen to them. After November 1945, and the Nuremberg trial, nobody in Europe or the rest of the world could possibly have ignored the extermination of more than 6 million Jewish people by the Nazis:. And yet, the Shoah was almost forgotten for more than a generation. The universal conscience kept it hidden. The fate of Raul Hilberg is quite illuminating. Today, he is considered as one of the greatest historians of the Shoah, a researcher with a worldwide reputation. Yet, he conducted most of his research in a climate of total indifference. As early as 1955 he finished his doctoral thesis, “The Bureaucracy of Nazi Germany”, but he did not succeed in getting it published. In 1961 a confidential edition of his masterpiece, The Destruction of the European Jews, did not receive much attention. It was not until 1985, when the second edition of his book came out, that he really attracted worldwide attention and that the scientific authority of Mr Hilberg was internationally recognized –– twenty-five years later!
Today we are witnessing another return of memory: the memories of the people of the South have endured terrible suffering from slavery. For 350 years they endured the worst conditions during which more than 40 million persons were deported in the most atrocious conditions. Then came the horrors of colonialism. With the notable exception of South Africa, colonial rule ended fifty years ago when most Asian and African countries gained their independence.
The last country to abolish slavery was Brazil in 1888, and that’s 120 years ago. So the question is: why is it only now that these memories are coming to the fore –– so late! I have put forward some hypotheses in my book.
One of them is that the memory of the South is now awakening. It’s a wounded memory which is being transformed concretely into requests for compensation and excuses. On the other side, you have the Western countries that dominate the world. The white population, although representing only 13% of the world’s population, dominates the Earth and has done so for 500 years. Many of the western governments give their answer by refusal, arrogance and cynicism. This is the reason why the United Nations is being almost paralyzed. Look, for instance, at the UN Millennium Goals –– they do not progress. Likewise, for 42 years, Nuclear disarmament has been stalled.
We could see this at the Durban Conference in 2001, and in four month’s time we will restart here in Geneva. I fear that it will be a bigger catastrophe than before, namely because of the arrogance and the cynicism of some Western governments. They do not excuse themselves, nor do they want to make reparations.
In December 2007, the French President went to Algiers to negotiate an agreement between France and Algeria. The two delegations were seated at the table and, before the negotiations started, the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said to French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “First, you must present your excuses for the massacres of Setif” (where 40,000 women, children and men were injured or killed on 8 May 1945 by the French Army).
President Sarkozy replied: “But, I’ve not come here for the nostalgia”. President Bouteflika replied: “Memory comes before business” –– and there was no business.
This phenomenon is radically new.
Q: In your book you denounce the WTO, the cotton issue, etc. Does this mean that you are opposed to globalization?
No. It’s certain that through this renaissance of the memory, new historical forces have been mobilisied. In 2005, Bolivia elected the first native Indian President after 500 years of colonialism and neo-colonial regimes. The hurt memory has resurfaced. It has been transformed in a powerful political force.
The hatred of the West is also fuelled by the world order, as it is today imposed by Western capitalism. Every five seconds, a child under the age of 10 dies of hunger, and 963 million people in the world –– that is almost one person out of six –– is gravely and permanantly undernourished. The people of the South see a direct connection between the genocide of the native population, slavery and colonialism. Today it is the tyranny of the globalized financial capital which oppresses the people of the Southern Hemisphere.
Q: You make reference to Norway in your book. Why?
Norway is a Lutheran country. Norwegians have a morality that is unique in the world. Norwegian foreign policy is dictated by Lutheran morality. Norway practises solidarity with the people of the South because of its religious values. The Norwegians also have know-how and high expertise –– because of North Sea oil they have excellent engineers, managers, etc.
I had the chance to discuss this matter with the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma. He told me that it was the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who had told him to contact the Norwegians to obtain assistance. The problem was the following. Evo Morales could not nationalize his country’s oil and gas resources; his country did not have the expertise. Morales needed to maintain the presence of the oil companies in his country, but to transform them from all powerful companies into service companies. Today the oilfields belong to Bolivia, the research and exploration is mostly done by the private foreign companies.
Full nationalisation was not possible for Morales; so you needed to come up with a proposal in negotiations that would be acceptable to the companies.
Norwegian experts came and examined each oil field, and they arrived at the average figure of 18% –– with 18% of the revenues it was still profitable for the foreign oil companies to exploit the field. The Norwegians told the American lawyers who are specialized in this field –– and, by the way, were paid by Hugo Chavez under the dictate of the Norwegians –– how to formulate the contracts and leave 18% of the profits for the oil companies.
This was based on the Norwegian model. You control your oil, but it’s a small country in partnership with international oil companies. The Norwegians told the Bolivians: if you leave them with 18%, and you keep 82%, it’s still profitable for them. Previously, the Bolivian State only received 5% of the revenues. So, within six months from 1 July 2006, Bolivia signed 220 contracts for oil explotation. There was only one company that refused this deal, and that was a Swiss company which was subsequently nationalized. The Norwegian calculations were really perfect.
From a social point of view, Bolivia was the second poorest country on the continent after Haiti. Today the new billions of the oil revenues help transform the country and eliminate misery. In Bolivia, 800 Cuban doctors are building the health system for the poorest people.
In his speech on 1 May 2007, in the Plaza Murillo, President Morales thanked Norway. He said “long live the Norwegian people” and he thanked them for their assistance. The local population who listened, and who did not really know where Norway is situated geographically, applauded very heartily, cheering Norway.
Q: You say that the Africans are awakening. Nowadays, we see the Chinese investing heavily in Africa, like the Europeans used to do. Do you think that the Africans will accept this new exploitation for long?
No, not at all. With this renaissance of the memory, all kinds of exploitation will come to an end.
Q: How long do you think this will take?
It will be quite soon. I would say within the present generation.
Q: What you are saying is that we will enter a completely different geopolitical situation?
Yes, totally. The South will impose themselves. What you see at the Human Rights Council is that the countries of the South are the ones who have the greatest influence. The Human Rights Council, composed of 47 states, is, after the Security Council and the General Assembly, the most important institution of the United Nations. The work of the Council is fascinating, very complex and difficult, but of historic importance.
The renaissance of the memory has given birth to two strong groups that dominate the UN, both here in Geneva and in New York. One is the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) which is a very well-organized organization with fifty-three member states, and the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) with 117 member states. They very strongly influence the Human Rights Council, and also the General Assembly, and that’s the reason why the Americans are losing ground. Many Europeans too are frustrated because they think that they invented human rights. The reason why some countries of the South do not want to do anything about the Darfur Crisis is because nobody is doing anything about Guantanamo or Palestine. Double standards are no longer acceptable.
Q: How do you build an internationally reconciled society?
History functions in an unpredictable manner. I will give you an example. On the morning of 14th of July 1789, the workers and small tradesmen from the Fauborg St Martin were marching towards La Bastille in order to liberate their friends, who were political prisoners. They took the Bastille, liberated the prisoners and burned the fortress. This was the beginning of the French Revolution. So if you, as a reporter, would have been present in Paris on that day, and you would have asked the insurgents: “Now tell me what is the exact formulation of the Constitution of the First Republic?”, you would have made a fool of yourself. Because this Constitution came 4 years later. So, we know what we do not want ––exploitation, famine, misery and injustice. Once liberty has been won back by the people, what will they do with it? And at what speed will they do it? Our desires are the horizon. But the way to get there?
In my book, I cite the Spanish poet Antonio Machado who brings it to the point: “Caminante no hay camino. El camino se hace al andar.” (“Wanderer, there is no way. The way is traced by your own path.”)
You have to be humble in front of history. I’m sure that we are at the beginning of a new world, because the capitalism of the jungle has lost its mask –– the neo-liberal invisible hand was supposed to regulate everything –– nobody believes in it anymore. And behind it you find speculators and criminals. So the empire of jungle capitalism has been broken. In the developing world many more people will die from hunger, and also in the western world many people will suffer namely with increased unemployment. The people of the western world will awake. They will arise. When people suffer, they start to think. There is a new global social contract that is in the making. I’m sure about it. Georges Bernanos writes “God has no other hands than ours” either we change this world or nobody does it.
Q: You say that a new global social contract will emerge. Do you see a model where the State will have a more important role to play –– or not?
I honestly think that it’s the civil society that will be the important actor, but the national State will recuperate its normative role, perhaps not necessarily in the forefront.