Header image for news printout

Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas

Opening statement by Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Comissioner OHCHR 

Fifth session


These past five years of negotiations, has been a steady journey from what was once a divergence, to now a closer convergence, of views.  For this progress, we owe a debt of gratitude to member states – and to civil society, academia, the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council and to others in the UN human rights system including to staff of our Office.

But throughout the process, and as we see here today, active participation of representatives of civil society and, critically, of affected rights holders themselves has been crucial – a proper practical manifestation of a principle proposed to be upheld by the declaration – the principle that people must be empowered to actively participate in decisions directly affecting them.

The drafting before you has been built on existing international standards relevant to the rights of peasants and people working in rural areas, including FAO Principles and several of their Voluntary Guidelines1.  And, after five years of diligent effort, the finishing line is now in sight. 

There must now be finalised - and with some sense of urgency – a robust focused declaration that can enable Member States to better address the gap in protection for more than a billion people -- peasants, rural workers, small farmers, fishers and herders, and others of their communities.

To be clear, today, peasants and others working in rural areas have insufficient recourse in the face of the discrimination they suffer and the other challenges they confront when seeking an adequate standard of living, when subjected to forced displacement and marginalization:

  • Globally, peasants feed the world, yet their own enjoyment of their right to food is obstructed.  According to IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), small farms provide as much as 80% of the food locally consumed in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.  Yet, as found by the Hunger Task Force of the Millennium Project, close to 80% of the world population who suffer hunger live in rural areas: 50% living in rural small-holding farming households while another 22% are farming households that have no land.
  • Indeed, in many places peasants’ access to land and other resources is deeply complicated – many have had their lands expropriated, have faced forced evictions and have been displaced from their ancestral homes.  Policies that could protect their rights are missing: such as human rights based agrarian reform and policies for rural development.  And, what’s more, when so-called austerity measures take hold, social policies for rural areas often are among the first affected, including through privatization of once public services.
  • Discrimination takes a harsh toll on peasants and other people working in rural areas broadly, and particularly on women. 60% of those suffering from chronic hunger are women, with rural women particularly affected.  Although women are major contributors to agriculture and rural economies, they have relatively less access to resources and services.  For a majority of women, their access to, use and control of land is diminished by unlawful discrimination in marriage, in standards governing legal capacity and inheritance and through more restricted access to financial and other resources.  Gender-based discrimination drives greater insecurity of tenure for women. which negatively impacts on their survival and erodes too the well-being of their families and their children.  This is particularly evident in situations of divorce, death or remarriage of the spouse.

If social and legal arrangements work against the interests of peasants, economic arrangements compound disadvantage at local, national and even global levels:

  • Globalization and its associated free trade agreements fail to factor in the costs to rural populations thus deepening food insecurity. Excessive protection by multinational corporations of such as patents over seeds erodes the ability of small scale farmers to use or exchange their own seeds, often indebting peasants by forcing exclusive purchase of those patented seeds.
  • The global forces of climate change are bringing more floods and longer droughts, imposing extreme weather events and irregular rainfall, driving soil erosion and bio diversity depletion.  Globally, these are transforming for the worse the livelihoods and lifestyles of those people directly dependent on the land.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development can help.  It promises an integrated agenda if delivery for people, peace, prosperity and for the planet.  But if its delivery is not grounded in international human rights law, standards, principles and norms that are enshrined in the SDGs, the benefits of implementation will not flow to all. 

Excellencies, “trickle down” rapidly becomes fade away.  By the time trickle down reaches the poorest, fade away has become take more away.  Reliance on trickle down approaches, in the era of the MDGs, saw the poorest becomes poorer, as the rich became richer.
70 years ago, the international community made a promise.  A promise to uphold – without exception - the core humanising ideal on which today’s international community is founded – that born we all are equal in dignity and rights. 

The UDHR – which has been affirmed repeatedly in major legal and normative instruments including in the Declaration on the Right to Development – makes clear that those are not optional promises; they are not ideological; not to be exercised at the discretion of power but rather as the obligations of power.  Promises that no one is to be left behind by discrimination nor poverty; or left out through marginalization; or forgotten because their truths are inconvenient to the privileged. 

Yet, those universal promises have not been upheld.  Peasants and other people working in rural areas have been left behind.  The only way to bring them in, is to stop leaving them out!

And, that is indeed the purpose of the text of the declaration on which together you will be working this week. 

You may be assured that as you do so, you have the full support of the HC and his Office.  And to that end, we wish you a most successful debate.


1. For background info some of these are: Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment; Voluntary Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries; Voluntary Guidelines on the Right to Food and the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests. However, we would suggest not mentioning them which would empty the need for a draft declaration.