Staunch opposition by the U.S. delegation and, to one extent or another, by European countries has blocked the approval this year of a draft multilateral declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, which is backed by the developing world.
Bolivian diplomat Angélica Navarro, chair of the intergovernmental working group tasked with drafting the declaration, recommended that it meet again in mid-2014.
Navarro said that in the meantime, she would hold consultations with representatives of governments, civil society and the United Nations, which is promoting the initiative through its Human Rights Council.
“From the start we knew the process would be difficult, because the positions of some countries clashed with certain provisions in the declaration,” said Malik Özden, representative of the Europe-Third World Centre (CETIM), a Geneva-based NGO that is behind the draft declaration.
Özden told IPS that industrialised nations critical of the draft document wanted to remove some fundamental elements from the text, such as references to land grabbing and intellectual property rights over agricultural technologies and inputs, especially seeds.
The draft declaration seeks to protect peasants who work the land themselves and rely above all on family labour in agriculture, cattle-raising, pastoralism, and handicrafts-related to agriculture.
The term peasant also applies to landless people in rural areas engaged in various activities such as fishing, making crafts for the local market, or providing services.
Besides the human rights and fundamental freedoms of peasants, the document recognises their right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, as well as their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.
The declaration also upholds their right to land and territory and to benefit from land reform, as well as their right to determine the varieties of seeds they want to plant and to reject varieties of plants which they consider to be dangerous economically, ecologically and culturally – aspects that collide with the interests of transnational agribusiness corporations.
Christophe Golay, from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, said the draft declaration guarantees individual rights that can be collectively exercised.
But in the case of seeds and ecological diversity, the document includes completely new rights, he told IPS.
However, Golay pointed to a few gaps in the draft declaration, such as the lack of references to social security for peasants and to their protection in conflict zones.
The working group, which met Jul. 15-19 in Geneva, heard reports from experts, academics and delegates of peasant organisations.
In the meeting, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter and his predecessor Jean Ziegler (2000-2008) did not hesitate to support the draft declaration.
But the United States raised jurisdictional objections, arguing that the Human Rights Council and its subsidiary bodies were not the right forum for discussing many of the issues proposed by the declaration.
A U.S. delegate even noted that the Council’s Advisory Committee, where the peasants’ right initiative first emerged, frequently mentioned the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in its report.
For that reason, he maintained, many of these debates should also take place in the FAO Food Security World Committee.
“The Advisory Committee final study admits that the draft declaration enumerates new rights, but many of these proposed new rights are not human rights,” the U.S. delegate said. “That is, they are not universal rights, held and enjoyed by individuals and that every individual may demand from his or her own government.”
He also said the draft declaration proposed to afford peasants collective human rights. But “we believe that efforts to create human rights for groups instead of for individuals are inconsistent with international human rights law,” he said, adding that “I want to be clear that we are not prepared to negotiate a draft declaration on the rights of peasants.”
The European Union also criticised the Council’s creation of the working group, and said it would not participate in negotiations of the draft declaration, although it left open the possibility of discussing improvements in the conditions of peasants in other forums.
The developing countries said they would continue backing the draft declaration, but conceded that certain points could be modified in order to reach a consensus.
Navarro told IPS that the working group was authorised by the Human Rights Council to hold sessions for three years in a row, and mentioned the possibility of the negotiations dragging on, even for decades, as has occurred in the case of international treaties in other areas.
But Özden was optimistic, even though he agreed with Navarro that the process could take years. “We hope the representatives of the states will be sensitive to the arguments of citizens and not just those of transnational corporations,” he said.
The number of peasants worldwide has not been stated in the documents presented to the working group.
In 2010, FAO estimated the number of people involved in agriculture at 1.394 billion, 1.357 billion of whom were in the developing world.
The U.N. agency noted that since 1950, the proportion of people dedicated to farming had steadily gone down, as the percentage of people involved in other economic activities had grown.