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Lynn Finnegan - April 2012 journal letter

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QUNO, Geneva

Dear Friends,

We are now half way through our placements and spring is well on its way in Geneva. The snow has disappeared from the foothills surrounding the city, and a small group of either brave or foolish swimmers have started their daily morning rituals in the lake. As the daffodils started to emerge in Quaker House garden, Helen, Steven and I travelled to Amsterdam to meet up with the other QPSW peaceworkers. It was a priceless opportunity to reflect together on the challenges and highlights so far, as well as think about what we want to achieve in the coming months. I realised how much I have learnt by being involved in QUNO’s work on food and sustainability. Three particular lessons sprang to mind.

The first concerns international law that governs the control over, and access to, seeds. Many say that patents and legal protection incentivise innovation in plant breeding, but many others point out that innovation has been happening for thousands of years before the advent of ‘intellectual property’. Now, however, we are not calling for the demise of intellectual property, but seeking to ensure that it allows
multiple systems of knowing and owning to exist alongside each other. Many indigenous communities, for example, see individual ownership of plants as a peculiar, Western concept. So while intellectual property may make sense where we come from, there are other contexts where it seems a strange and destructive way of managing living things.

The main international institution controlling seed ownership is the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Seeds (UPOV). QUNO, as part of a group of NGOs, is currently embarking on a human rights impact assessment of UPOV. This will look in depth at some of the impacts it has on a range of human rights in a number of developing countries. This will include exploring the effect of UPOV legislation on people’s access to adequate, diverse and affordable seeds, and so have implications on their human rights to food and health.

Secondly, I have learnt that while a UPOV human rights study is essential, we cannot talk about seed policies. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 70% of agricultural biodiversity has disappeared since 1900. But seed policies are one factor in a multitude of trends that are pushing us towards industrial farming and away from diverse, locally adapted and controlled food systems. We cannot understand the whole picture until we consider the rules that govern international agricultural trade, the financial speculation that occurs in food crop markets and the role that poor land rights play in agricultural investment around the world. With this in mind, it was interesting to attend part of the 19th session of the Human Rights Council in early March. Here, a range of voices were calling for farmers’ rights to be more firmly embedded in international human rights law. This could help bring to light the interacting forces that shape farmers’ choices and control over the seeds they plant, the chemical inputs they use, and the land they have access to.

My third lesson concerns commas and full stops. International guidelines and legal documents can seem dry and irrelevant when longwinded conversations start revolving around such grammatical intricacies. But then I remember the impact these documents can have in reality.

An interesting example is the Maastricht Principles on Extra Territorial Obligations (ETOs) of States. These have recently been drafted by a group of high level experts and practitioners to clarify States’ accountability for their actions that impact economic, social and cultural rights outside their national boundaries. The document brings together legal arguments from different sources, and whilst focusing on States’ obligations, could also help bring into reality legal accountability for the actions of transnational corporations. I was energised by the experts working on these Principles when I attended the ETO meeting in early March.

Currently it is hard for transnational companies to be held legally accountable for their activities in courts outside the countries in which they are headquartered. The Maastricht principles recognise that States’ – and non-State actors’ - activities, for instance through trade and investment practices, can impact human rights in other countries. The Principles aim to shift accountability mechanisms to be more geographically inclusive, recognising the increasingly globalised world we now live in. ‘Extraterritorial’ activity would have to answer to the impacts they have on economic, social and cultural rights in every country they work in. This could include projects that have bought up tens of thousands of hectares of land, displacing and marginalising local communities. Or agricultural projects that expose workforces to chemical fertilisers that have long lasting damaging effects on human health. In which case, these realities should spur us on to persevere through those commas and full stops.

At the time of my last journal letter, I noted the UN and World Trade Organization can often seem a vast, insulated bubble, protected from the reality of the outside world by crisply ironed suits and computer screens. I still laugh at the thought of these ironed suits ever touching real soil. I doubt many ever will, and remain convinced that this needs to be addressed; indigenous communities, small scale farmers and other vulnerable populations need to participate in the decision making that profoundly impact their everyday lives. We envision international frameworks that not only enable, but empower, local communities to build secure, sustainable and equitable food systems. I hope our work will help in a small way to contribute towards this, and one day, that I won’t have to iron my shirts so crisply to blend in here.

In Friendship,
April 2012