- Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement: Reclaiming Control by Priscilla Claeys
Human rights critics have chided the human rights community for failing to recognize that the subjects of its protections, and especially the world’s poorest and most oppressed people, “may aspire to an alternative view of dignity, rights, and the ‘good life’ than that offered by the [human rights] saviour.”1 While often polemical, critiques such as these make a serious point about the (in)adequacy of the normative content of human rights. As scholars and practitioners increasingly turn to matters of implementation and enforcement, the question of whether the “right things” are being implemented is arguably being neglected. The highly abstract and often ideological nature of these debates has, in any case, made them somewhat stale. Moreover, the utility of the analysis, invariably produced in isolation from the study of human rights practices, is questionable, as rights on paper do not tend to translate tidily into rights in the “real world.” In other words, what rights say tells us little about what individuals and groups can (or cannot) do with them. [End Page 1114]
Priscilla Claeys’ study—which is both a sociology of human rights and a sociology of social movements—is arguably the first in some time to actually advance the debate on the adequacy of international human rights law’s (IHRL) normative content as it pertains specifically to the needs of the world’s 1.6 billion poor people.2 She takes the debate beyond the realms of theory and delves deep into the empirical, looking at why rural social movements composed of the poor and chronically undernourished have rejected dominant conceptions of human rights, including the right to food; and why elements within these movements have, at the same time, conceived of and sought to institutionalize “new” human rights as part of their struggle for justice. In addition to the question of the (in) adequacy of human rights’ normative content, Claeys’ findings have important theoretical and policy implications for contemporary debates on, inter alia, the institutionalization of human rights, the translation (or vernacularization) of human rights in concrete social contexts, and the study of human rights and social movements.
The context to Claeys’ study is the ongoing impoverishment of over a billion people living in rural areas around the world and their resistance to their dispossession.3 Denied secure access to vital goods such as food, water, healthcare, and education, people living in poverty in rural areas also constitute a majority of the world’s 805 million chronically hungry people.4 Resistance to rural dispossession and impoverishment has been documented in a large number of countries throughout history, but in the 1990s, this resistance took on a global dimension when rural social movements (also referred to as agrarian or peasant movements) composed of poor workers and producers from around the world formed a transnational movement called Via Campesina.5 At its inception, the movement’s goal was to better enable rural activists to contest the international policies, such as unfair international trade rules and debt agreements, which were driving their impoverishment. The movement today has an estimated 200 million members.6 At around the same time, a number of human rights organizations started to work on similar policy issues, using IHRL—and especially the right to food—as their guiding frame. Claeys’ study shows, however, that Via Campesina members, on encountering the right to food, found it lacking.7 She reveals that some movement members went on to reject any use of human rights in their struggle, whereas others elected instead to develop their own conception of human rights, one that is [End Page 1115] more plural and multicultural and less statist and individualistic than dominant conceptions.8 Centered on the notions of the right to food sovereignty and the rights of peasants, elements within the movement even sought to institutionalize the latter at the international level, succeeding, with NGO assistance, in placing it on the agenda of the Human Rights Council in 2009.9