by Yali Banton-Heath

Some positive news! A solid step has been taken towards the wider global push for an increased protection of rural workers rights. In Geneva on Friday 28th September 2018, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution culminating in the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.

With 33 votes in favour, 3 against (one of which being the UK), and 11 abstentions, the declaration will now be taken to the 3rd committee session of the UN General Assembly in New York in October, where it will be open for adoption by all UN member states. Once adopted, it will serve to strengthen the obligations of governments in upholding the rights of its nations rural populations: of peasants, indigenous communities, migrant workers, and small-scale farmers alike. Some argue that we must be wary of such expansions of rights. I disagree.

the outcome of the resolution does arouse a strong feeling of hope and anticipation.

Despite urban populations projected to hit 68% of total the global population by 2050, the plight of the rural poor continues to be an ever growing concern. Mounting environmental and climatic risks, widespread confiscation of land leading to subsequent tenure insecurity and displacement, exploitation of rural workers and lack of workers rights, as well as a general marginalisation of rural communities from access to legal, educational and health services – all pose a serious ongoing threat to the wellbeing and self-determination of rural populations.  Albeit nothing concrete at this stage, this declaration stands as a symbol of international political solidarity in acknowledging such issues – and, moreover, a willingness to address them.

It should be noted, and indeed applauded, that this resolution is a product of the undying efforts of international peasant’s rights movement La Via Campesina who passed on a proposal of the declaration to the UNHRC back in 2008. A revised version of the document was then formally submitted to the session on Friday by Bolivia, who urged its fellow member states to adopt the declaration in October, highlighting its importance to broader sustainable development and biodiversity goals. La Via Campesina’s work on issues ranging from landlessness and women’s rights to seed sovereignty and climate justice is highly precious and commendable, and it is immensely satisfying to see such hard work come to fruition on a global platform.

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Small-holder paddy farmer in Burma. Image credit: Yali Banton-Heath, 2016.

Despite the disappointing fact that the UK voted against the resolution on the grounds that the declaration sought to ‘expand on existing rights’, the outcome of the resolution does arouse a strong feeling of hope and anticipation. For activist networks, social movements and grassroot organisations it is a beacon for their existing struggles and future endeavours. Groups such as these, who tirelessly fight for the rights of both people and their environment often risk all in their pursuit of justice. All too often we hear reports of the arrests, abuses and even deaths of human rights defenders and activists as a result of violent backlash and suppression of their efforts by military or government forces. This declaration now provides a standard to remind states and governments of their obligations, and binds grassroot efforts with international soft law.

in a world of increased right-wing populism we must be wary of retreating back to a narrow liberalism when defining the scope of human rights.

It’s precisely this ‘expansion on existing rights’, feared so much by the UK, that in my opinion is something that needs to be nourished. Global movements such as HelpAge International, who are pushing for a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, and even Mission LifeForce, who are advocating for the extension of legal rights to the natural world, are invaluable to our expanding understanding of rights. It was once seen as unnecessary to grant half the world’s population with women’s rights, or LGBTQIA* people with their own set of rights, but this notion obviously seems ludicrous in retrospect. In a policy paper directed at the European Parliament, human rights law expert Adam Langford expressed concern that in a world of increased right-wing populism we must be wary of retreating back to a narrow liberalism when defining the scope of human rights, and I challenge anyone to contest this.

Our world is beautifully diverse, and the more respect, specialised support and legal status we can afford to marginalised groups and the planet as a whole, the better. This declaration on Peasants’ Rights does just this, and I look forward to seeing active use made of it in struggles worldwide.


Featured image credit: FAMSI, Flickr.


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