The mystery of memory

An interview with Jean Ziegler

By Marit Fosse
Geneva, Switzerland
Norwegian American Weekly
Jean Ziegler recently authored "La Haine de l'Occident" (The Hatred of the West), in which he references the unique morality of Norway. Ziegler is the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

Jean Ziegler, former United Nations Special Rapporeur on the Right to Food, recently authored “La Haine de l’Occident” (The Hatred of the West), in which he references the unique morality of Norway.

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 University of Geneva. 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 a epoch for 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 many generations before it started to become 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 human beings by the Nazis: the Jews, gypsies, the mentally ill, etc., and the massive deportation of communists, homosexuals, soviet citizens, etc. 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 never succeeded 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 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 injuried 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: 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 their religious values. They 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 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 exploration. 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 May 1, 2007, 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.

This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly on January 9, 2009. 

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Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.