Opening statement of Ms. Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Working Group on a United Nations Declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.

Geneva 15 July 2013

Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

(I am pleased to address the first session of the Working Group on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.)

As we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights, it is right that we recall the importance that the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action placed on the importance of the promotion and protection of all human rights.  

In our rapidly globalizing world, people working in rural areas, including small scale farmers, fishers and pastoralists face fundamental challenges to their way of life: volatile food markets, skewed trade practices, climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and the lack of rights to manage the land on which they live and work, and upon which they rely on for their livelihood, can all have negative effects on the human rights of these communities. People working in rural areas are confronted with rising inequalities in both the developed and developing world, along with harsh austerity measures and the lack of decent employment. The result is that hard working individuals are locked in abject poverty, despite their best efforts to provide for themselves and their families. These challenges require governments to review laws and policies and find coherent and human rights-based strategies. It is only through free, active and meaningful participation that people working in rural areas will be able to work with governments to address the issues they face, at both the national and international levels.

Since the 2007 – 2008 global food crises, Member States have renewed their recognition of the crucial role people working in rural areas play in achieving food security and sustainable development. The 2009 World Food Summit, the Secretary-General’s Zero Hunger Challenge, and the Rio + 20 outcome have all emphasized the importance of protecting the human rights of small-hold food producers, such as “peasants”, small scale farmers, fishers and  pastoralists, and of placing them at the centre of efforts for ensuring sustainable food production and eco-systems. In recent years, innovative mechanisms have been devised to facilitate a more participatory  approach to governance issues which are key concerns of people working in rural areas, such as national platforms for food and nutrition and, at international level, the reform of the Committee on World Food Security, which is envisaged to be the most inclusive international and intergovernmental platform for all stakeholders, including civil society and farmers and producer organizations, on food security and nutrition.

Still, the majority of people living in hunger are the rural poor. FAO reported in October 2012 that nearly 870 million people, or one in eight, suffer from chronic undernourishment, while many of the top agricultural producers are developing countries. People working in rural areas are often deprived of their rights not only to food but also the rights to adequate housing, water & sanitation, health, and decent work. Deprivation of their livelihood tends to undermine their cultural rights, considering the strong links with the surrounding environment and their cultural and spiritual life.  At the same time, people working in rural areas are often subjected to exclusion and marginalization in decision-making processes. Time and again, individuals, families and rural communities are denied the rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly, and the right to information.

People working in rural areas are often affected disproportionately by conflict, including foreign occupation, destruction of lands and produce, and displacement. This further exacerbates the denial of rights, prolonging conflicts and the exploitation of land, water, and other natural resources. Examples of communities being evicted from their traditional lands so that private corporations favoured by governments can produce so called “cash crops” or the exploitation of natural resources by an occupying power, are some of the issues that have been brought to the attention of the High Commissioner. Last month’s Vienna+20 CSO Declaration highlights how peasants and other people working in rural areas on all continents face methods of physical and psychological violence as communities face intensified evictions by State or non-state actors.

The promotion and protection of the human rights of people working in rural areas can constitute a fundamental basis for solutions to these global challenges. Rights-based prevention and resolution of conflicts arising from food, climate change, the environment and the more equitable distribution of wealth and resources can help to secure a future that allows people working in rural areas to work with States to shape their own destiny through inclusive dialogue. 

Distinguished delegates,

The call for rights of people working in rural areas is not confined to declarations, summit outcomes or political debates within the United Nations. Mass protests against austerity measures, exploitative trade agreements and rights-insensitive government policies have called for better protection of economic, social and cultural rights around the globe and have demanded accountable, democratic, economic and political governance under the rule of law. Freedom from fear and want without discrimination, must be at the heart of any future solution.  

We are now living on a planet that is rapidly urbanising, and where, for the first time in human history there is a higher population of people living in urban than in rural areas. We therefore must not forget how rural poverty has a knock-on effect in relation to urban poverty. We have seen global trends that show when people in rural areas have a lack of access to their rights they are pushed towards urban areas, which increases social pressures, and exacerbates competition for resources in urban areas, which can again lead to conflict. As such, protection and promotion of the human rights of people living in rural areas is not only a rural issue, but also facilitates mitigation of urban poverty.

Distinguished delegates,

We look to this Working Group to reflect and guide the international community on these issues, and to provide a comprehensive, human rights-centered development paradigm that examines the existing protection measures for people living and working in rural areas and identifies any possible protection gaps. This guidance must place human rights at the centre of the debate and aim to improve the rights of all people working in rural areas.

I am pleased to note – despite the obvious differences –that a constructive and collaborative spirit prevailed during the informal consultations of this Working Group. This gives us all hope that common objectives can be found and I look forward to the final outcome. Be assured of the full support of my Office in your work ahead.

I thank you for your attention and wish you a fruitful debate.