The Rights of Peasants - 4
11 / 2009
The United Nations was slow to respond to the demands of la Vía Campesina. For several years, CETIM denounced violations of peasants’ rights in meetings with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), before the annual reports of la Vía Campesina and FIAN were presented at parallel events, to a relatively small audience. The Human Rights Council was created in June 2006 and it was only with the work of its Special Rapporteur on the right to food and its Advisory Committee in response to the global food crisis, that peasants’ rights were really discussed by the United Nations. In 2009 la Vía Campesina was invited by the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly to give its point of view on the food crisis and the way in which it might be remedied. It was at this point that la Vía Campesina presented its Declaration on the Rights of Peasants as one of the solutions to the food crisis. (1)
1. Debates at the General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council
Since his appointment as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food in May 2008, Olivier de Schutter has made significant contributions to the debate about the food crisis and the right to food and has highlighted very clearly the need to restore the role of small-scale peasant farmers and agricultural workers in the fight against hunger.
In May 2008, Olivier de Schutter called on the Human Rights Council to hold a special session on the food crisis and its impacts on the right to food. (2) The first thematic special session in the history of the Human Rights Council was held on May 22, on the food crisis and the right to food, and a resolution entitled ‘The negative impact of the worsening of the world food crisis on the realization of the right to food for all’ was adopted unanimously. (3)
In a very interesting passage from this resolution, the Human Rights Council called upon “States, individually and through international cooperation and assistance, relevant multilateral institutions and other relevant stakeholders (…) to consider reviewing any policy or measure which could have a negative impact on the realization of the right to food, particularly the right of everyone to be free from hunger, before instituting such a policy or measure.” (4) According to this resolution, the production of agrofuels, financial speculation and the free-market liberalization of agriculture should be assessed according to the impact they might have on the right to food, particularly for peasants.
Following this special session, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food presented a number of reports on the food crisis in 2008 and 2009, in which he stressed the need to protect small peasants. In his most recent report, presented to the General Assembly in October 2009, he lays particular emphasis on the need to protect peasant families’ access to seed. (5)
In 2009, representatives of la Vía Campesina were also invited at the Human Rights Council and at the UN General Assembly. At the Human Rights Council, on March 9, 2009, a representative of la Vía Campesina discussed solutions to the food crisis in a debate organized by the Human Rights Council with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, N. Pillay, D. Nabarro, Coordinator of the Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, and J. Ziegler, member of the Advisory Committee. A month later, another representative of la Vía Campesina was invited to take part in an interactive thematic dialogue of the UN General Assembly on April 6, 2009, devoted to the food crisis and the right to food.
Paul Nicholson represented la Vía Campesina at the Human Rights Council on March 9, 2009 and Henry Saragih was their representative at the General Assembly on the April 6, 2009. In their opening speeches and in the debates that followed, the two representatives of la Vía Campesina put particular emphasis on the violations of peasants’ rights, which have further increased during the food crisis. They then put forward their view that the Declaration of the Rights of Peasants – Men and Women and the adoption of a UN Convention on Peasants’ Rights could form the basis of a solution to both the discrimination against peasants and the food crisis. (6) Their arguments were well received by the different parties and it was clearly understood that the protection of peasants’ rights should be an integral part of the work of the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council.
2. The work of the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council
The Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council was created at the same time as the Human Rights Council itself in June 2006. (7) After a long inauguration period, the 18 members of the Advisory Committee were elected in March 2008 and their first working session took place in August 2008. From the start, the Advisory Committee has been mandated to work on two specific areas: education on human rights and the right to food. It was in relation to the right to food that the Advisory Committee discussed the need to protect peasants’ rights.
In its Resolution 7/14 on the Right to Food of March 27, 2008, the Human Rights Council stated that ‘80 per cent of hungry people live in rural areas, and 50 per cent are small-scale farm-holders, and that these people are especially vulnerable to food insecurity, given the increasing cost of inputs, and the fall in farm incomes; that access to land, water, seeds and other natural resources is an increasing challenge for poor producers; and that support by States for small farmers, fishing communities and local enterprises is an element key to food security and provision of the right to food’ (Para 10). It then mandated the Advisory Committee to make further recommendations to advance the realization of the right to food (para 34).
In line with this mandate, the Advisory Committee, in its first session, set up a working group to report on the right to food composed of one expert for each region: Mr Bengoa, Ms Chung, Mr Hüseynov, Mr Ziegler and Ms Zulficar. (8) This group was then asked to produce a report on the right to food divided into three parts: the global food crisis and the right to food; the States’ obligations; and recommendations on what measures should be taken. In this report, presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2009, the Advisory Committee analyzed the effects of the food crisis on the plight of peasants and recommended to the Human Rights Council that it carry out a study on the “The Current Food Crisis, the Right to Food and Peasants’ Rights.” (9)
In March 2009, when the recommendations put forward by the Advisory Committee were discussed by the Human Rights Council, it produced a lively debate. Several Latin-American States were in favour of a study on the food crisis, the right to food and peasants’ rights, but other States (particularly from the West) were against it. A compromise was reached and was expressed in a Human Rights Council Resolution 10/12 on March 20, 2009, which requested the Advisory Committee to undertake a study on “discrimination in the context of the right to food, including identification of good practices of anti-discriminatory policies and strategies”(para 36).
The study on discrimination in the context of the right to food is due to be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2010. In preparation, J. Ziegler has produced two working documents. The first document reported on ‘noma’, a neglected disease that affects children suffering from malnutrition; the second was entitled ‘Peasant Farmers and the Right to Food: a History of Discrimination and Exploitation’. In this second document, J. Ziegler describes the different kind of peasant farmers and the many forms of discrimination that they have suffered over the centuries. He then introduces the international movement la Vía Campesina and its work to defend peasants’ rights. (10)
The two working documents prepared by J. Ziegler were discussed at the third session of the Advisory Council, in August 2009, and the Advisory Council asked the working group on the Right to Food to produce a report on discrimination in the context of the right to food, between now and the end of 2009. In this report, which will be discussed at the fourth session of the Advisory Committee in January 2010, and presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2010, discrimination against peasants will be one of the central themes.
3. Perspectives on the future: how to place the recognition of the rights of peasants at the heart of the United Nations?
The Advisory Committee will present its report on non-discrimination in the context of the right to food to the Human Rights Council in March 2010. Part of this report will be devoted to looking at cases of discrimination against peasants. The Advisory Committee could recommend to the Human Rights Council that it takes into account the adoption of the Vía Campesina’s Declaration of the Rights of Peasants – Men and Women and investigates the various ways in which the UN could recognize and protect peasants’ rights.
In the next months, la Vía Campesina’s call for action will be essential to convince States on the need to offer a complete protection of peasants’ rights by the adoption of a new instrument. The opportunities to develop new instruments to protect human rights within the United Nations are relatively restricted. But they exist. In the past, recognition of unacceptable forms of discrimination against women, indigenous peoples or migrants led States to adopt new conventions or declarations. There is no objective reason which would explain that discriminations experienced over centuries by peasant families should not be recognized by States and a new international instrument be introduced to bring this discrimination to an end.
Throughout ancient and recent history, peasants have always been among the first victims of hunger and many forms of discrimination. Massive violations of human rights, including the right to food, have been reported by la Vía Campesina and most have been committed with impunity. This situation has been aggravated by the outbreak of the food crisis in 2007 and 2008, and some of the measures chosen by States to remedy the situation, such as the purchase of foreign land, will undoubtedly lead to new violations of peasants’ rights.
In order to put an end to the repeated violations of peasants’ rights, la Vía Campesina adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Peasants – Men and Women in June 2008. At the same time, it made the recognition, understanding and protection of peasants’ rights among its primary objectives.
The rights of peasants are already partly recognized within the international instruments that protect human rights, such as the ICESCR and ICCPR, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These instruments have been supported by a progressive interpretation of the rights that they protect by monitoring bodies and experts at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In the Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food adopted in November 2004, States have also accepted this progressive interpretation and have taken a commitment to respect, protect and fulfil peasants’ rights.
However, the need to recognize the rights of peasants within the United Nations, as conceived by la Vía Campesina, seems to be both useful and necessary. It would be useful to recognize in a single document the numerous rights of peasants that have already been recognized in other international instruments, to increase coherence and visibility. But it would also be necessary, at least for two reasons: first, because the current recognition of peasants’ rights is not providing sufficient protection to peasant families, in particular against the growing control over food and productive resources exercised by multinationals; second, because it will force States to take action against the discrimination faced by peasants. It must be backed up by the recognition of new rights for peasants, such as the right to land, to seed and to the means of production.
Since 2007, States have made several commitments to re-invest in rural development policies and in sustainable local food production to cope with the food crisis. (11) But the same commitments were already made in 1974 and 1996, after similar food crises, without real effects. These promises were never kept and the number of hungry people continued to increase before exploding in 2008 and 2009. The recognition of the rights of peasants within the United Nations would be an important step to guarantee that the current commitment are not an idle dream.