UN’s World Food Program: Jean Ziegler causes “withdrawal of food aid & medicine from needy people”; actions are “profoundly immoral,” “unconscionable”

Letter from WFP Executive Director James T. Morris to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, dated October 24, 2002

Dear Mr. Secretary-General:

Knowing how busy you are, I regret having to take your time on this issue, but since I arrived here at the World Food Programme, I have been following with some concern the public statements of Jean Ziegler, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In particular, I was disturbed by the attached release by Reuters which gives the impression that Mr. Ziegler speaks on behalf of the United Nations. You will note in the text that Mr. Ziegler has attacked the agreed position of the United Nations and the views of the director-general of WHO on GM/Biotech foods and he has done so without citing any scientific authorities, studies or reports. WFP staff in Geneva confirmed directly with him that the substance of the Reuters report was correct and that he had not been misquoted.

The last thing we need right now in Southern Africa—or anywhere for that matter—is for someone whose credentials are in sociology and law to pass judgment on the scientific competency of the World Health Organization or other UN bodies which have studied the issue of GM foods with care and continue to do so. It is especially disturbing when the media associates these views directly with the United Nations. Does Mr. Ziegler seriously believe that if GM foods are banned from food aid that no one will go hungry when nearly 70 percent of global food aid comes from countries where maize and soy are very often GM and 60 to 70 percent of processed foods have some biotech content?

This is not the first disturbing public pronouncement by Mr. Ziegler that has made it harder rather than easier for WFP to help hungry people fulfill their right to food in emergencies. My predecessor, Catherine Bertini, wrote to you earlier about his statements promoting the idea that food aid was being diverted to the military and endorsing the withdrawal of aid by NGOs like MSF from North Korea because the government there refused to grant aid workers complete access to the entire country. Well, we agree that full access must remain the shared goal of all humanitarian workers in the DPRK, but playing politics with aid is profoundly immoral. To withdraw food aid and medicine from needy people because of the actions of any regime is unconscionable.

Politics can assist or impede efforts to see that people have access to food. I would submit that the clearly inflammatory politics played by Mr. Ziegler has had a negative impact on the lives of the hungry—donors have certainly questioned WFP after his interventions on the DPRK and Southern Africa.

In fact, as you well know, we continue to have trouble raising resources for the DPRK and have recently been forced to cut the rations of 3 million children and the elderly.

I would also like to bring to your attention another release by Interpress Service (attached). While we appreciated his compliment to WFP and do not disagree with several points he makes, does Mr. Ziegler believe that repeated public railings against the Bretton Woods institutions and multinational corporations will encourage them to cooperate with the United Nations in promoting the right to food? His public statements and the reports he has submitted to the General Assembly show a serious lack of understanding of economics and the details of the food situation in the areas he professes to analyze on behalf of the High Commissioner.

I have copied this letter to Mr. Sergio de Mello for his consideration. I hope you will give some thought to the possibility of discussing this issue with him. There are so many talented, responsible, and humane people who could do an excellent job as the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. At the international food policy research institute and at major universities, there are a number of experts who understand the complexity of food security issues and whose careers have demonstrated a commitment—not to publicity—but to finding solutions to the chronic hunger that still afflicts the lives of so many of the world’s poor.


James Morris, WFP Executive Director

UN Watch