The UN United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas was adopted by the United Nations (UN) at the end of 2018 by a large majority (121 votes in favour, 54 abstentions, 8 votes against). This Declaration marks the culmination of a historic process: it is the result of nearly 20 years of mobilization of La Via Campesina and its allies, and 6 years of negotiation at the UN Human Rights Council.
The Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger has shown that 80 % of the world’s hungry people live in rural areas. Seventy-five percent (75%) of the one billion people living in extreme poverty in the world today live and work in rural areas. The global food crises of 2008 and 2009 and the corona virus that has been shaking the world since the end of 2019 have worsened the situation. Half of the people suffering from hunger are smallholders who depend mainly or partly on agriculture for their livelihood. Some 20 % are landless families who survive as sharecroppers or as low-paid farm labourers who often have to move from one precarious and informal job to another; 10 % live in rural communities with traditional fishing, hunting and herding practices. Women account for as much as 70 % of the world’s hungry people and the vast majority of them work in the agricultural sector.
Despite the existence of several international instruments for the protection of the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of individuals, the above figures indicating the number of people affected by hunger in rural areas have been increasing steadily. Discrimination against this category of the population continues. Studies on human rights violations committed against rural populations show that existing human rights instruments are not sufficient to protect them and that certain specific aspects of the condition of peasants are not sufficiently taken into account. The UN Human Rights Council therefore considered the need for a specific legal instrument to explicitly strengthen the rights of people living and working in rural areas very important. The result of this consideration is the “Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other people working in rural areas”.
In 2010, the Human Rights Council mandated the Advisory Committee to undertake a preliminary study on ways and means to further promote the rights of people working in rural areas, including women, in particular smallholders engaged in the production of food and/or other agricultural products. In 2011 and 2012, the Advisory Committee presented this study identifying five main causes of hunger that particularly affect peasants and other people working in rural areas: Expropriation of land, forced evictions and displacement; Gender discrimination; Absence of agrarian reform and rural development policies, including irrigation and seeds; Repression and criminalization of movements protecting the rights of people working in rural areas Lack of a minimum wage and social protection. The recent phenomenon of global “land-grab” has added another dimension to these concerns as Governments and companies seek to buy and lease large tracts of productive land in other countries, for food to be exported back to their countries, or to grow biofuels to fill the petrol tanks of those in the global north. Supermarkets buy their products primarily from large producers who are able to supply larger quantities. Because of their market power, supermarkets often dictate discount prices. These low prices in turn lead to poor wages and a lack of protection for farm workers.
An important outcome of this declaration is a major step forward in the protections of the rights of peasants and other rural workers. The rights stipulated therein are conditions for the realization of the right to food of the target groups, including: the right to land; the right to seeds; the right to means of production such as water, credit and tools; the right to food sovereignty. Most of these rights are new and do not appear in any other human rights instrument. This is the case, for example, of the right to land, seeds and means of production.
States have a great responsibility to ensure that peasants and others working in rural areas fully enjoy their rights. In the context of the declaration, States have, inter alia, the obligation to respect and protect: they must not interfere with the realization of the rights of peasants; they must refrain from expelling peasants by depriving them of the resources they need to lead a dignified life; they must refrain from adopting laws that allow private actors to abuse the rights of peasants; they must avoid issuing environmental permits knowing that the authorized activity will pollute the land and water and affect the right to water or to food and nutrition. The declaration obliges States to adopt all necessary measures to prevent private persons, such as landowners or transnational and national companies, from interfering with the realization of these rights.