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UN Declaration defends peasant farmers, but will it help stop attacks and human rights abuses?

Rural activists are finding out that a UN declaration to protect them and action by governments to hold those responsible for human rights violations and attacks on them accountable – are two different things. Español

Natalia Gomez Peña
5 April 2019
Rural protest in Guatemala, Wikimedia Commons.

The old cliché “action speaks louder than words” has a deadly ring for campesino (peasant farmers) activists contemplating a historic international pledge to do better to protect them from state-sponsored attacks.

One of the toughest, deadliest years for campesino (peasant farmers) activists in Latin America ended in December with a historic United Nations declaration to ensure their wellbeing and prosperity.

Some 121 countries, representing two thirds of the world’s population, voted to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), which pledges to protect the rights, lives and livelihoods of peasant farmers and rural workers globally.

The declaration was a long time coming and many campesino communities – who have fought costly battles corporations to protect their lands and lives from harmful mining and infrastructural projects for years – celebrated the commitment to their struggles.

It recognizes that campesinos have a special relationship with their land, water and nature and that they suffer the disproportional burdens of environmental degradation and climate change.

But as activists are finding out, a UN declaration to protect them and their resources and action by governments to do so – and hold those responsible for human rights violations and attacks on them accountable – are two different things.

That’s something that colleagues and relatives of Willy René de Paz, an indigenous activist with Committee for Campesino Development (CODECA), have found out. Paz was gunned down by unknown assailants just a couple of weeks ago.

His murder followed the killing of fellow CODECA activist, Delfino Agustín Vidal in January. Guatemala, which abstained from voting on UNDROP in the UN General Assembly, is one of the deadliest countries for rights activists, particularly indigenous ones.

Indeed, the ink was barely dry on the historic declaration when, just hours after it was voted into existence at the UN General Assembly on December 17, a Nicaraguan court sentenced two local campesino movement leaders to 216 years in prison for their participation in anti-government protests. The arrests, trial and sentencing of Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena on manufactured terrorism charges in December, drew widespread international condemnation.

The presence of Nicaragua on the list of core countries supporting the declaration, while it blatantly continues to violently repress dissent and criminalizes the peasant movement, raises serious questions about integrity and legitimacy.

The two campesino activists, with the National Council in Defense of Land, Lake and Sovereignty, had led a years-long protest campaign against government plans for an inter-oceanic canal that would prove disastrous for the land, water and environment of peasant farming communities around the designated route of the canal.

Ironically Nicaragua, which is in the grips of a political crisis brought on by violent state repression of mass pro-democracy protests that has left more than 300 people dead, was among countries that voted in favour of the declaration while continuing to target peasant rights organisations.

But the presence of Nicaragua on the list of core countries supporting the declaration, while it blatantly continues to violently repress dissent and criminalizes the peasant movement, raises serious questions about the integrity and legitimacy of the declaration. What good is this pledge to protect campesinos’ rights when those who organize to demand their rights are thrown in prison by governments who have committed themselves to it?

In a number of Latin American countries, campesino activiststs have been subjected to persecution including intimidation, assaults, arbitrary arrests and detentions, judicial harassment and assassinations, for their opposition to projects that violate their rights and threaten their survival.

Just on March 27, police in Paraguay prevented an annual campesino march in the center of the capital, Asuncion, from going ahead. The police acted under a restrictive law that prohibits demonstrations in the city centre before 7pm. The marchers were urgently demanding land reform. According to international aid organization, Oxfam, about 90 percent of arable land Paraguay is owned by five percent of the population.

In Latin America’s most powerful nation, Brazil, indigenous, rural human rights defenders are also fighting against growing threats and attacks them and their campaigns, since the far-right politician Bolsonaro became president.

But the persecution of these organisations in the region have not deterred activism – Guatemalan campesino protesters blocked roads and major highways to highlight a slide towards a human rights crisis in their country that includes the increased targeting of indigenous campesino communities protesting transnational companies’ projects that threaten their land and natural resources. Seven activists were killed in one month alone, between May and June last year, in what appears to be a new stage of repression.

In Latin America’s most powerful nation, Brazil, indigenous, rural human rights defenders are also fighting against growing threats and attacks them and their campaigns, since the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro became president in January.

Brazil is already the world’s deadliest country for indigenous, land and environmental activists in terms of numbers of killings, according to NGO Global Witness.

Just last week, Dilma Ferreira Silva, an internationally recognised Brazilian activist and member of the Movement of People affected by Dams (MAB) who was one of 32,000 people displaced by a mega-dam construction, was brutally murdered in her home in Brazil’s Pará state, by unknown assailants.

If the UN Declaration and efforts to get governments to respect campesino rights is to have any real impact, countries that blatantly target activists and their movements must be held to answerable – especially if they are paying lip service to such efforts. In Nicaragua, it has to start with the immediate overturning of the conviction of Mairena and Mena and the safe release of these and all the other members of campesino and social movements languishing in prison.

This article has been produced in partnership with CIVICUS in the context of the International Civil Society Week conference 2019, held this year in Belgrade, Serbia.

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