Towards a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants

The 19th of November 2018 marked an important step forward towards an instrument protecting rural people and their livelihoods: in a rather overwhelming vote of 119 in favour, 49 against and 7 abstentions the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian, Cultural) of the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution A/C.3/73/L.30 which endorses the draft of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNROP). Detailed results can be found here.

The initiative to start the process dates back already more than 10 years and was spearheaded by La Via Campesina, a “movement bringing together millions of peasants, small and medium size farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world.” The motivation for the UNROP stems from the increasing pressure that rural people have to face in light of malnutrition and poverty, climate change, forced replacement and disproportionally elevated other social problems. With the adoption in the Third Committee, the path is now paved for a formal adoption by the General Assembly during its next meeting.

As per article 1 of the UNROP, the ‘peasants and other people working in rural areas are defined as’:

[a]ny 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 land.

Moreover, the article stresses that the rights enshrined in the Declaration apply to dependants of peasants, indigenous and local communities as well as hired and seasonal workers, including migrants irrespective of their migratory status.

The present draft Declaration, which as such would be legally non-binding, encompasses 28 articles which contain fundamental human rights that can also be found in legally binding and widely ratified human and labour rights instruments. Moreover, the Declaration explicitly references the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – an instrument that has found wide endorsement amongst UN member states. To this end, the right to life; to assembly; to access to justice; to land; to housing; to adequate food; the right to a healthy environment; or the right to culture form central elements of the UNROP.

One specific right, however, should be emphasised: Article 19 establishes the right to seeds. This is an entirely new right and cannot be found in other human rights instruments. Along with the right to seeds goes the right to plant genetic resources and the right to the protection of associated traditional knowledge. This right stems from the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity and now finds application within a human rights instrument. Moreover, however, this right is linked to intellectual property laws which are to “respect and take into account the rights, needs and realities of peasants and other people working in rural areas” (article 19.8).

Apart from the broader human rights tenet of the UNROP, a central role of its provisions plays the rights of women. After the aims and scope of the declaration (article 1), general state obligations (article 2) and the rights to enjoy fundamental human rights (article 3), in 10 sub-articles article 4 outlines exclusive rights of women, including the right to equal access, self-help initiatives and freedom from violence. This early occurrence within the text indicates that women are normatively considered a central subject of the Declaration. Other declarations, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), do not place such emphasis on women’s rights: UNDRIP, for instance, refers to general women’s rights only in articles 21 and 22.

Whether the UNROP will be adopted remains to be seen. The European Union member states are divided on the text, particularly due to the establishment of new rights. Also the United States does not support the Declaration. It is particularly developing countries which will push for its adoption.

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