UN – Forcing multinationals to respect human rights. About sixty delegates from social movements and communities from many countries are in Geneva this week to demand this as the ninth session of the UN Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Human Rights gets underway.
Overexploited Peruvian miners in gold mines, Indonesian peasants whose land is being taken over by coal mining or child workers on cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire – they all have an interest in the adoption of a treaty obliging these giant companies to behave more responsibly. According to the Global Campaign to Dismantle the Power of Transnational Corporations, a coalition of some 250 organisations from around the world, the project, which was launched in 2014, is being pushed from all sides under pressure from the European Union and the United States, which are doing everything they can to weaken the treaty (see below).
Among them, the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) – itself a federation of tens of thousands of women peasants in southern Africa – is highlighting the privatisation of agricultural seeds by multinationals such as Syngenta, which is headquartered in Switzerland. From a feminist perspective, they question the agro-industrial model as much as land concentration and patriarchy. We spoke to Norah Mohdobozi, its coordinator in South Africa.
What prompted the creation of the Rural Women’s Assembly?
N o r a h M o h d o b o z i : We are a self-organised movement of women peasants from ten countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. We created this organisation because we realised that women in our countries face the same challenges, particularly those of access to land and gender-based violence. Through RWA, women speak with one voice, amongst themselves and to governments. Most of our members practice agroecology. We converted to it after realising that with industrial agriculture and its chemical inputs, we cannot produce in sufficient quantity and quality on our small properties of one hectare or half a hectare. Agroecology is not only sustainable, it allows us to use our own seeds and produce in the way we like. We also want to contribute to the well-being of our communities by selling healthy food. Often our smallest plots are controlled by women and we want to have a say in everything we do.
What are your main problems today?
Despite our crucial role in food production, a shocking number of women and their families suffer from hunger and malnutrition in the countryside. Firstly, because we are not free to use our own indigenous seeds and ancestral knowledge to produce food. Secondly, we don’t have enough land. This is largely because we are women. Men have access to larger plots of land. Rural areas are governed or controlled by patriarchy. Traditional local authorities and chiefs do not allocate land to women when they ask for it. As a result, we now need to organise ourselves collectively to take action. In South Africa, we led a major national campaign called “One woman, one hectare” to get the government to allocate us fertile land. Our minister told us that the state couldn’t afford it, but that she was going to allocate one hectare per household. We told her we didn’t want that.
Why not accept it?
Because today most families are controlled by men, and women are often trapped in toxic relationships, leading to domestic violence. They can’t get out because they can’t provide for themselves and their children. If a woman owns the land, she can produce food for herself and get out of destructive relationships. Our emancipation depends on challenging patriarchy.
What’s wrong with traditional seeds? Why are you hindered in using them?
Our governments have adopted regulations and policies that favour hybrid seeds and GMOs from multinationals to the detriment of our indigenous seeds. They prevent us from sharing them. They say that our seeds are not guaranteed and that they cannot feed the nation. This is not true. Women are generally the guardians of indigenous seeds and the traditional knowledge that enables them to be used. We are being deprived of this role. With industrial seeds, and the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that go with them, we are suffering from diseases previously unknown in our regions. What’s more, every season you have to go back to the shop to buy these seeds and inputs… It’s all very expensive and you sometimes have to borrow from your neighbours. You don’t own them, you buy them every time you plant and if you don’t have the money, you starve. The worst thing is that most peasants, especially women, are often illiterate and untrained in the use of dangerous pesticides. What’s more, these products aggravate climate change, from which we suffer so much in the in the countryside, especially in the south of the continent.
“These companies force use their seeds by putting pressure on our governments”. – Norah Mohdobozi
What is the link with the UN treaty on transnational corporations?
These multinationals are forcing us to use their seeds by putting pressure on our governments to favour them. In Geneva, we are going to showcase our seeds, and demonstrate that they are very healthy, productive and viable, and that we are able to support the nation and our communities by using them. Seeds are life, they provide food, and when you have them, you are rich! The treaty must include this issue so that we have the right to use and exchange them. We also need to be able to transport them from one country to another. I’d like to be able to share my seeds with my sisters in Zimbabwe.
A treaty negotiated at loggerheads
The tug-of-war began yesterday morning in the Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Human Rights at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Dissatisfied with the latest version of the draft treaty presented by Ecuador, which chairs the body, the African group, made up of 55 countries, called for the text to be purely and simply withdrawn from the negotiating table and replaced by a new one, according to Raffaele Morgantini, who is in charge of the dossier for the Geneva-based NGO Centre Europe-tiers monde (CETIM). “It has to be said that this version completely distorts the mandate of the working group by omitting to impose obligations on transnational corporations. What’s more, by extending the mandate to all businesses, this text diverts attention from the heart of the problem: entities that escape justice because of their transnational nature and the gaps in international law. It is impossible to negotiate on this basis”, says the NGO’s permanent representative, who is delighted by the reaction of African countries, supported by Colombia, Bolivia, Cuba and Pakistan, among others. With such a project, “nothing could be done to tackle the transnational architecture of impunity”. Yet this was
the very aim of this binding legal instrument proposed in 2014 by Ecuador, at the time led by progressive president Rafael Correa. Since then, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge: Ecuador has moved to the right, and the European Union, the United States and their allies, who defend their companies, have since done everything they can to remove any substance from this treaty. “Their vision is one of voluntary self-regulation by companies, embodied in the principle of human rights due diligence,” says Raffaele Morgantini. “From this reductive perspective, most of the references and proposals aimed at establishing mechanisms and provisions for legal responsibility for transnational corporations have simply been deleted.” On the contrary, CETIM and the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power believe that these standards should be adopted and that an international tribunal on transnational corporations and human rights should be set up. Will the Working Group, which is meeting at the UN throughout the week, propose a new version of this treaty on a different basis?
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants adopted in 2018 protects peasant seeds. Isn’t that enough?
The government has signed this declaration but is not implementing it. We now have an international instrument to put pressure on the government to change its policy. But it’s not enough. We also need to force multinationals to respect human rights (see below). The treaty under discussion this week represents a great opportunity to take a major step in this direction.
 A photo exhibition in English about the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) will be inaugurated today, 24 October at 6pm, at the Centre œcuménique des Eglises, route des Morillons 1, in Geneva.
 Comprising sixteen countries in Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean, including South Africa, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.