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Agricultural investment and human rights: Do the RAI Principles live up to the task?

On October 15, 2014, the Member States of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), hosted at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, approved the “Principles on Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems.” (“RAI” or “RAI Principles”)

In a recent assessment of the principles, the Transnational Institute (TNI) exposes some of the key issues that the RAI Principles needed to address in order to effectively anchor the principles in human rights norms and values with, ultimately, unsatisfactory results.

With the objective to “promote responsible investments in agriculture and food systems that contribute to food security and nutrition, thus supporting the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security”, the RAI Principles are the outcome of a more than two year global consultative process, involving governments, civil society organizations, the private sector, UN agencies, development banks, foundations, research institutions and academia.

The negotiation of the principles often proved arduous, reflecting the highly contested nature of investment in agriculture, and the economic and political interests that lie at the heart of this issue.

For the world’s small-scale food producers and workers, the issue of agricultural investment is highly significant. Small-scale food producers are responsible for the bulk of investment in agriculture and are the lynchpin to realizing global food security. Their ability to do so is based on the distinctiveness of peasant family farming production which is characterized by a diversified set of practices tailored over time through a highly knowledge and skill intensive process to best suit particular agro-ecological contexts. Furthermore, given the intimate connection between production and reproduction in this model, the investments made by small-scale food producers serve to sustain land-based cultures, identities, and livelihoods.

TNI’s briefing analyzes the RAI principles from civil society’s perspective of a vision for a consolidated set of standards that safeguards against land and resource grabbing, prioritizes investments by and for small-scale food producers and workers, and that delivers on its promise to promote investments that enhance food security and nutrition and help realize the right to adequate food for all.

Anchoring the RAI Principles in a human rights-based framework was an important red line for the civil society organizations participating in the negotiations. At first sight, the RAI Principles seem to live up to this. For instance, the right to food appears in the overall objective (paragraph 10) and in the headline paragraph of Principle 1. The core human rights conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labor Organization Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are listed as part of the foundational documents underpinning the RAI Principles in the conceptual framework. The overarching values for implementation of the Principles in paragraph 20 are based on key human rights values including human dignity, non-discrimination, equity and justice, gender equality, holistic and sustainable approach, consultation and participation, the rule of law, transparency, accountability, and continuous improvement.

But the human rights foundations of the RAI Principles are undermined by repeated references to trade agreements and rules. Of particular concern is the listing of “relevant multilateral WTO agreements” in the conceptual framework as well as paragraph 33 which says that States should ensure that responsible investments in agriculture and food systems are consistent with international agreements related to trade and investment and paragraph 34 which says that “States should not apply the Principles in a manner that may create or disguise barriers to trade, or promote protectionist interests, or in a way which imposes their own policies on other nations”.

The right of indigenous peoples to exercise free, prior and informed consent regarding developments that take place within their territory (FPIC) proved particularly controversial. Canada in particular consistently refused to endorse this point, forcing the text to be bracketed at the conclusion of the final round of negotiations last August and essentially holding the negotiations hostage until the Committee on Food Security Plenary of last October. At that time, the text was approved with Canada registering its objection in written comments.

Principles 9 and 10 of the RAI deal with governance structures and processes including issues related to participation, consultation, information disclosure, grievance mechanisms, remedies and accountability. Civil society made some key gains in this section, namely:

–Principe 9 ii) which states that the sharing of information relevant to the investment should take place in an inclusive, equitable, accessible and transparent manner at all stages of the investment cycle.

–Principle 10 iii) which defines responsible investment in agriculture and food systems as including mechanisms to assess and address economic, social, environmental, and cultural impacts by “Identifying measures to prevent and address potential negative impacts, including the option of not proceeding with the investment.”

But highly problematic in the RAI is their uncertainty about the role the state should play. For instance, on the positive side, it recognizes:

–“States should take measures to address all agriculture and food system workers’ labor rights, in line with applicable international labor standards and in social dialogue with their respective organizations and employers, when formulating and applying labor laws” (paragraph 37)

–“States have a key role in enabling, supporting and complementing investments by smallholders…” through, inter alia, “Addressing the needs and constraints of smallholders, both women and men, in a gender sensitive manner in policies, laws and regulations, and strategies to address capacity development through improved access to inputs, advisory and financial services including insurance, education, extension, training, and infrastructure” (paragraph 39, i)

On the other hand, States are said to have a key role in “supporting the development of markets for rural economies” (paragraph 39, v) and “fostering public-private partnerships” (paragraph 40, iii) with very little recognition for the need to address power imbalances that exist within these partnerships or markets which mean that they often work against small-scale producers and workers.

Following their adoption by governments, it still remains to be seen how the RAI Principles will be used by different actors in different contexts and how they will relate to other international standards, guidelines, and initiatives. Whether and how the rai can actually be used by people at the front lines of struggles to defend their rights – or conversely whether they will be used by powerful actors to further entrench the status quo and accelerate towards a state of regress – will be a major test of their worth.

The failure of the RAI Principles to truly provide a framework for normative guidance for agricultural investment that is based on human rights suggests that civil society must exercise caution in aligning themselves with any efforts to use or implement them for it is only through such a framework that more democratic and just food systems across the world can be realized.

Sylvia Kay is a researcher within the Agrarian Justice team of the Transnational Institute (TNI),  an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable planet. Click here to access full text of the brief on which this blog is based.

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