Dozens of human rights and watchdog groups are calling on the United Nations to expel from its ranks a Swiss official who allegedly had a hand in creating the al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights more than two decades ago.
The prize, as its title suggests, is named after Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, whose efforts to mow down rebels and protesters triggered an internationally backed no-fly zone and military intervention last month. Over the years, the award bearing his name has gone to such controversial and dubious figures as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Louis Farrakhan and French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy.
The story behind the prize is a matter of dispute, but UN Watch and others claim Jean Ziegler -- a former member of the Swiss Parliament who for the last several years has served as an adviser to the U.N. Human Rights Council -- played a leading role.
UN Watch, a United Nations watchdog group, was among 45 organizations that sent an appeal to U.N. leaders this week urging them to oust Ziegler, along with a Libyan official, from the Human Rights Council. Further, they urged the Human Rights Council to apologize to victims of Qaddafi's regime for electing Ziegler in the first place, and the Swiss government to do the same for nominating him.
The appeal referred to Ziegler as "a long-time apologist and propagandist for Col. Qaddafi and his regime."
As recently as last month, Ziegler, who serves on the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, has denied supporting Qaddafi and denied being behind the Qaddafi prize. He told a Swiss television station last month that he's never supported Libya's policies and never played a role in the human rights prize, according to a transcript of the broadcast.
The Austrian Times also reported last week that he called Qaddafi a "psychopath" -- however, the same report said the government of Salzburg had just rescinded an invitation for him to speak at an upcoming festival because of his potential ties to Qaddafi.
"If a leading music festival is ashamed and now distances itself from Qaddafi apologists, why is the United Nations not doing the same?" UN Watch Director Hillel Neuer said in a statement.
A UN Watch report in 2006 alleged that Ziegler played a "leading role" in founding the prize bearing Qaddafi's name, and went on to become vice chairman of a group that helped administer the prize.
Several news reports from 1989 -- when the first-ever Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights was awarded to South African leader Nelson Mandela -- cite Ziegler in connection with the award.
United Press International quoted Ziegler, as a committee member, describing the prize as "an anti-Nobel Peace Prize award for the Third World."
Time magazine reported that Qaddafi put $10 million in trust to finance the prize. The Time article described Ziegler as a "member of the jury that selected Mandela" as its first recipient.
The award, said to be worth $250,000, has since gone to more controversial figures.
The website for the prize says it was established in 1988 -- the same year as the Libya-orchestrated Lockerbie bombing -- to recognize individuals who "have distinctively contributed to rendering an outstanding human service and has achieved great actions in defending human rights, protecting the causes of freedom and supporting peace everywhere in the world."
Ziegler, as well as a representative at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, did not return requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described Ziegler as an "independent" expert, and said the issue would have to be resolved by the "member states" that selected him.
UN Watch has also called for the U.N. to remove from its working group on mercenaries Libya's Najat Al-Hajjaji, whom the organization accused of shielding the Qaddafi regime "from any accountability whatsoever."