By Afsar Jafri

The initiative of La Via Campesina, largest peasant movement on earth comprising more than 182 organizations from 81 countries, for a United Nation Declaration on Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural areas will soon be a reality. At the conclusion of 5th Session of the United Nations Open-Ended International Working Group (OEIWG) on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, held in Geneva, April 9-13, the process for finalizing the declaration this year was further revitalized. The Declaration will create an international human rights instrument, within the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), for the promotion and protection of peasant rights. It will also draw attention to the threats and discrimination peasants and people involved in small-scale food production across the world suffer from. Through this Declaration, millions of peasants around the world will also be able to reclaim their rights to feed their families and communities, as it recognizes the fundamental role of small-scale food producers while also offering them tangible prospects for decent working and living conditions, consequently making this world a safer place for peasants.

The motive for evolving the UN Declaration on Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas has been exquisitely illustrated in the Preamble of its last revised draft. (A/HRC/WG.15/5/2 of 12th February 2018). It says:

  • Recognizing the special relationship and interaction between peasants and other people working in rural areas, and the land, water and nature to which they are attached and on which they depend for their livelihood;
  • Recognizing also the past, present and future contributions of peasants and other people working in rural areas in all regions of the world to development and to conserving and improving biodiversity, which constitute the basis of food and agricultural production throughout the world, and their contribution in ensuring the right to adequate food and food security which are fundamental to attaining the internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development;
  • Concerned that peasants and other people working in rural areas suffer disproportionately from poverty, hunger and malnutrition;
  • Concerned also that peasants and other people working in rural areas suffer from the burdens caused by environmental degradation and climate change;
  • Concerned further about peasants ageing around the world and youth increasingly turning their backs on agriculture owing to the lack of incentives and drudgery of rural life, and recognizing the need to improve the economic diversification of rural areas and the creation of non-farm opportunities, especially for rural youth;
  • Alarmed by the increasing number of peasants and other people working in rural areas forcibly evicted or displaced every year;
  • Alarmed also by the high incidence of suicide of peasants in several countries;
  • Stressing that peasant women and other rural women play a significant role in the economic survival of their families and in contributing to the rural and national economy, including through their work in the non-monetized sectors of the economy, but are often denied tenure and ownership of land, equal access to land, productive resources, financial services, information, employment or social protection, and are often victims of violence and discrimination in a variety of forms and manifestations;
  • Stressing also that several factors make it difficult for peasants and other people working in rural areas, including small-scale fishers and fish workers pastoralists, foresters and other local communities to make their voices heard, to defend their human rights and tenure rights, and to secure the sustainable use of the natural resources on which they depend;
  • Recognizing that access to land, water, seeds and other natural resources is an increasing challenge for rural people, and stressing the importance of improving access to productive resources and investment in appropriate rural development;
  • Convinced that peasants and other people working in rural areas should be supported in their efforts to promote and undertake sustainable practices of agricultural production that support and are in harmony with nature, also referred to as Mother Earth in a number of countries and regions, including by respecting the biological and natural ability of ecosystems to adapt and regenerate through natural processes and cycles;
  • Considering the hazardous and exploitative conditions that exist in many parts of the world under which many peasants and other people working in rural areas have to work, often denied the opportunity to exercise their fundamental rights at work, and lacking living wages and social protection;
  • Concerned that individuals, groups and institutions that promote and protect the human rights of those working on land and natural resources issues face a high risk of being subject to different forms of intimidation and of violations of their physical integrity;
  • Noting that peasants and other people working in rural areas often face difficulties in gaining access to courts, police officers, prosecutors and lawyers to the extent that they are unable to seek immediate redress or protection from violence, abuse and exploitation;
  • Concerned about speculation on food products, and the increasing concentration and unbalanced distribution of food systems, which impairs the enjoyment of human rights;
  • Recognizing that, in order to guarantee food security, it is essential to respect, protect and promote the rights recognized in the present declaration.

On April 16th, the LVC and other social movements issued a Joint Statement from Geneva on the outcome of the 5th Session of the OEIWG, which says that “it appears clear that, aside little exceptions that we all know, nobody denies the need for adopting such Declaration. This process is a demonstration of the effort to continue advancing the pluriculturality of the human rights system.” It further says, “after seventeen years of work, effort, and dedication, throughout the world, this process has made our movement and struggle stronger than ever. We are always ready to take our roles in terms of fighting for our human rights. The legal gaps with regard to the protection of peasants’ rights and of other people working in rural areas at the international human rights level, need to be filled without further delay. This is our Declaration…all peasants and other people working in rural areas around the world strongly identify themselves with the content of this Declaration, which will be an instrument to restore and dignify our status in society, to recognize and protect our rights, and to guarantee conflict resolution with dialogue and in peaceful manner”.

In the opening of the 5th Session, April 9th, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights said in her opening remarks that “over five years of diligent effort, the drafting had been built on existing international standards relevant to the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, as well as FAO Principles and several Voluntary Guidelines.” These remarks from the Deputy High Commissioner transmitted a sense of urgency to the Working Group to finalize its work on the draft declaration to address the gap in protection for more than a billion people, who face discrimination and other challenges. She also said that “the situation is aggravated by globalization, free trade agreements, and patents over seeds which erode the ability of small farmers, as well as climate change which affects particularly those who depend on the land.”

As told by the LVC representative at the 5th Session to Focus, the negotiation went on quite smoothly on some of the articles that gained broad agreements, including in languages but that some of the articles witnessed intense debates, among these Article 5 (Right to natural resources), Article 11 (Right to information with regard to production, marketing, and distribution), Article 12 (Access to justice), Article 15 (Right to adequate food), Article 16 (Right to a decent income and livelihood and the means of production), Article 17 (Right to land and other natural resources), Article 19 (Right to seeds), Article 20 (Right to biological diversity), Article 26 (Cultural rights and traditional knowledge), Article 18 (Right to a safe, clean and healthy environment), Article 21 (Right to water and to sanitation), Article 28 (General), Article 2 (General obligations of States), Article 1 (Definition of peasants and other people working in rural areas), and in the preamble and negotiations on the matter of  collective rights. However, La Via Campesina delegates, its allies, and experts emphatically defended these articles through inputs and testimonies favoring their retention.

Other civil society groups that were represented in the 5th session were the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association (IUF), World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), Federation of Rural Adult Catholic Movement (FIMARC), International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), Association Centre Europe-Tiers Monde (CETIM), FIAN International, International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), Bread for All, among others. The experts who were assigned certain articles or groups of articles played a key role in explaining the importance of various articles and why these articles must be retained in the current draft, stressing that any dilution or deletion of text of these articles would compromise the spirit of those articles and would go against the current human rights obligations and ultimately affect the protection of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.

At the end of the final meeting of the of the five-day session on April 13th, the Chair-Rapporteur concluded that a revised draft will be prepared by the Chair-Rapporteur on the basis of the different proposals and views expressed during the fifth session of the working group, and encouraged States, civil society organizations, and relevant stakeholders to send their written textual proposals and contributions to the draft declaration, as presented during the fifth session, before 20 April. During the negotiations, the Plurinational State of Bolivia and especially Chair-Rapporteur played a constructive role with the sole intention making the Declarations a reality as soon as possible.

The Chair-Rapporteur will also prepare a final draft to be submitted to the Human Rights Council for its adoption, in fulfillment of the mandate of the working group as stated in paragraph one of Resolution 19/21 and subsequent resolutions. The draft Declaration will come up for vote at the Human Rights Council in June 2018 and it is hope that the whole process will finally be concluded with a vote on the draft Declaration at the UN General Assembly in September this year. The period from now till June has been deemed crucial for mobilizing the member states of UNHCR towards voting for this historic declaration.

If this Declaration gets adopted by end of this year, according to La Via Campesina this will be a wonderful gift from the World Community of United Nations in its 25th year (LVC was formally established in 1993) of its long struggle for the protection of peasants’ rights and millions of peasants, indigenous peoples, pastoralists, fisher folk and rural workers, and rural women.

Afsar Jafri can be contacted at: [email protected]