Human Rights Council Advisory Committee: Is Ziegler the problem?

First published on 27 September 2013

I observed with some amusement the debate in Switzerland about the nomination of Professor Jean Ziegler to the United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Committee. UN Watch pulled its resources together to campaign against the man. Geneva politicians relayed the message in national parliament and obtained a decision of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs to oppose Ziegler’s candidacy supported by the Swiss government. Impressive advocacy.

As a leftist politician in Switzerland, professor of sociology and lawyer, Jean Ziegler denounced Switzerland’s engagement with the worst regimes, including its support for the apartheid South Africa, and he has been the front-runner denouncing Switzerland’s bank policies. His numerous books published in various languages are a good indication. Indeed, he has always been close to revolutionary regimes. He has a natural inclination in favour of revolutionary forces. I do not share most of his most recent views on this — we debated about Hugo Chavez for example. However, Jean Ziegler has been a needed voice in Switzerland, both as professor and politician, and has been a brilliant United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Yes, he has been critical with Israel following his visit to the occupied territories and no I might not agree 100% with his conclusions — isn’t that his work? Yes, he has been critical with the international food companies — isn’t that his job? Yes, he criticised Western countries for their agricultural policies — isn’t that his job description?

In any case, nobody can suggest that Jean Ziegler is not independent, does not understand human rights and does not have at heart to protect those who’s rights are violated — a few pictures of him accepting the Kadhafi Price which he gave back 48h later will not make me change my opinion about the man.

Whilst we were all focused on Jean Ziegler’s candidacy, nobody looked into others.

As usual, the Eastern European group in the United Nations did not present a candidate against the one supported by the Russian Federation. At the same time, Russia will be reelected member of the Human Rights Council because no other Eastern European State has the ambition to become a member of the Council. Yesterday, Russia saw his candidate unopposed and unchallenged.

Mikhail Lebedev is a high-level diplomat, from the former USSR to the actual Russian Federation diplomatic service, and served latest as Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations at Geneva. His diplomatic career is linked to an academic presence. However, his experience is mainly the one of a State representative and his “contribution in the field of human rights” (on of the criteria to select members of the Advisory Committee, Note by the Secretary-General, 15 August 2013, § 7, (a), (ii), UN Doc: A/HRC/24/17) is to represent Russia’s views, including defending the idea that international human rights law should adapt to so-called “traditional values”.

Mikhail Lebedev is with no doubt a brilliant personality and a leading figure within the Russian diplomacy, most probably very close to decision-making in Moscow. He certainly has “high moral standing” (another criteria), he however does not have “independence and impartiality”. The Note of the Secretary-General even underlines that “individuals holding decision-making positions in Government or any other organisation or entity which might give rise to a conflict of interest with responsibilities inherent to the mandate will be excluded”.

Given the role held by the Advisory Committee until now to refuse so-called “traditional values”, who can believe that Mikhail Lebedev is not acting as part of a decision-making process? Given his loyalty to the State, both at the times of the USSR although his curriculum vitae is enigmatic about his role before 1991 and now, can anybody believe that there is no conflict of interest?

The debate the Council should have had is about the issues, it is about the credibility of the independence from State bodies of the candidates. Many human rights defenders would disagree with views represented by Mikhail Lebedev. However, if he was really independent, I would not have a problem with his views being included in the Advisory Committee — today I doubt his views are not the ones of the current Russian Federation leadership and doubt he will independently argue and represent views.

The debate NGOs should have is about the weakness of the like-minded States in the Eastern European group. Why does not one single State stand against Russia’s candidacy for the Human Rights Council? The Asian group and the Latin American group will both have votes and we can hope that the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Cuba are not reelected. The Russian Federation will be elected by acclamation to the Council, just as Mikhail Lebedev was elected by acclamation yesterday.

We come back to the original question; in the whole Eastern European group, was there no other person competent and experienced, with academic studies and substantial experience and personal contributions in the field of human rights, with knowledge of the United Nations system and high moral standing, and who is independent and impartial? Just in case, for next time, dear Eastern European States, I am sure the Human Rights House Network can come up with a few names…