Peasants, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous people and rural workers gathered together once again in Geneva from 15 – 19 May, 2017, to claim their rights and to have them recognised in the human rights law framework through a United Nations declaration. The right to land, to seeds, to food sovereignty, to markets, to fair working conditions and to public policy participation were all at stake as the fourth session of the UN Open-ended intergovernmental working group (OEIWG) addressed the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.

The declaration process: from grassroots to the United Nations

For over 15 years, La Via Campesina, the world’s largest peasant movement, has been working on the Declaration of Rights of Peasants – Women and Men, a legal document that would protect peasants’ rights, with the ultimate aim of having it recognised by the UN. The declaration is based on issues generated by grassroots peasant movements – groups of people organising collective actions at a local level such as campaigns and events – to secure political change nationally and internationally.

In 2009, the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee undertook a study to investigate discrimination in the context of the right to food and to identify good practices to tackle it. After having collected and evaluated views from member states, specialised agencies and international organisations, the committee concluded that the creation of a new instrument to strengthen peasants’ rights was needed. The committee also presented the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas, largely based on La Via Campesina’s declaration, as a model from which to further develop a legal framework on peasants’ rights. In 2012, the Resolution 21/19 established a UN OEIWG, and this group is in charge of negotiating, finalising and approving the declaration. The declaration is still a draft under discussion, improved and readapted several times to fit a complex policy context, but many steps forward have been taken towards its adoption.

Who are the peasants? Why do we need to protect their rights?

Definitions of the word ‘peasant’ often refer to a person with low social capital and little money and education. Such definitions neglect the importance of the peasant in society. This becomes particularly problematic when the term enters a policy framework as decision-makers don’t have a well-structured definition to rely on. The declaration proposes a more accurate and updated definition in its first of twenty-seven articles:

“A peasant is any person who engages or who seeks to engage alone, or in association with others or as a community, in small-scale agricultural production for subsistence and/or for the market, and who relies significantly, though not necessarily exclusively, on family or household labour and other non-monetized ways of organizing labour, and who has a special dependency on and attachment to the lands.”

Peasants account for more than one-third of the world population and produce over 70% of the world’s food. They are also the guardians of biodiversity and the first to confront climate change. Their rights are fundamental in assuring food sovereignty and food security. In 2050 when according to recent estimates the planet will have 9.8 billion people on it, we will definitely need them.

However, since the beginning of the OEIWG negotiations, there was a lack of broad consensus on certain proposed articles, especially several concerning the right to land and the right to seeds. On one side, they were considered inappropriate and poorly formulated by some delegates, while another contingent of delegates felt they were needed to make the declaration fully effective. Would a peasant still be a peasant without land and seeds?

Positions on the declaration

Following each negotiation session, in the absence of a common agreement on the rights proposed, UN member states decide through a vote whether or not to extend the mandate of the working group and establish another negotiation session in the future. Although voting in favour of the mandate extension does not necessarily mean full agreement on the terms of the declaration, voting against it represents a clear intention to close the dialogue. By taking into consideration the votes given in the past, it is possible to identify blocks of countries with different positions on agricultural policy, with some pursuing an industrial agricultural model rather than a small-scale decentralised one. Unsurprisingly, the countries which support the Declaration turned out to be those where the presence of a peasant identity is still strong.

Every European government voted against the creation of the working group on the Resolution 21/19. Many of them, along with the US, opposed, and most recently, abstained on the vote to extend the group’s mandate to a further session. In contrast, Latin American countries and Russia have always supported broad recognition of the declaration; and while African and Asian-Pacific countries initially showed a certain degree of abstention, they are now very engaged in the negotiations as evident from their last few votes.

New rights, old rights or special rights?

The criticisms made by the countries which are hindering the process are based on two main arguments. Firstly, they claim that since some rights such as the right to participation and the right to food are already regulated by existing directives, it is unnecessary to create a new instrument to address them. Secondly, these countries assert that the declaration introduces “new” rights, including the right to seeds, the right to land and the right to the means of production, that are not recognised under international human rights law. For this reason, to embed these “new” rights in the declaration is seen as a “special treatment” for peasants. However, these contestations are based on assumptions that are not solid enough to justify such a strong stance against the declaration. For instance, as observed by an international law expert in the second report of the OEIWG, those “new” rights are not actually completely “new” in international law, because they exist in other international directives. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People represents a concrete example of the presence of these “new” rights in other international laws since it explicitly addresses the right to land. Moreover, to include both new and existing rights in a UN declaration would be perfectly in line with UN practice.

The peasants’ rights proposed in the Declaration of the Rights of Peasants are not ‘special’ rights but are rather articulations of existing human rights, structured to peasants’ needs and contexts.

Moving forward

The fourth negotiation session has just ended. Important preparatory work has been done by La Via Campesina and other organisations supporting the rights of peasants, collecting evidence and information to develop a solid legal grounding with which to underpin the Declaration. For the first time, Eastern European countries participated in the discussion in an active way, which is promising for future progress since Eastern Europe hosts most of the peasants in the EU, with Romania alone comprising almost 50% of EU peasants. Mrs Nardi Suxo, the OEIWG chair-rapporteur, also reported good news on the headway made in the negotiations and the wish to complete the draft in the forthcoming session.

Moreover, some of the articles that were considered to be “new” rights, have now been favourably reconsidered, and they are more and more entering national legislation. For instance, Switzerland will have a referendum next year to incorporate the principles of food sovereignty into its constitution. Despite the fact that some countries still express a certain degree of resistance in recognising the importance of peasants’ role in society, this session represented an important turning point in its repositioning of peasants at the centre of society rather than on its edges.