ARC Seminar: Marc Edelman: Defining ‘peasant’ at the UN Human Rights Council

MAR 20, 2014 | 4:00 PM TO 6:00 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue




March 20, 2014: 4:00 PM-6:00 PM





Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC)


This article analyzes the “translation” of social scientific concepts into language relevant to UN debates and drafting processes. The focus is on the Human Rights Council’s new Intergovernmental Working Group charged with negotiating a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants. The first article of many international human rights instruments includes a specification of the rights holders, an issue the author was invited to address in a briefing paper for the first session of the Working Group in July 2013. The text of the briefing paper forms the core of this article. Its preparation was not simple. The audience of diplomats required a synthetic style. Political sensitivities of civil society actors and influential member states had to be taken into account. The Preface to this article outlines these considerations, as well as the history of the Peasants’ Rights Declaration initiative, from its origins in Indonesia to its adoption by the transnational agrarian social movement, Vía Campesina, and its slow progress through the UN system. The briefing paper on definitions of “peasant” considers: (1) historical definitions from societies where peasants constituted an estate-like or subordinated social group; (2) social scientific definitions from anthropology, sociology and agrarian studies; (3) activist definitions employed by agrarian movements, particularly Vía Campesina; and (4) normative definitions, including those proposed by civil society organizations and by the Advisory Committee of the Human Rights Council. The final section of the article analyzes the Working Group’s first session and the obstacles to approving a UN Declaration on Peasants’ Rights.

Marc Edelman is a Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY and Hunter College. His areas of specialization include economic and political anthropology, historical anthropology, social movements, development, agrarian studies, and Latin America. Currently, Edelman is working on a project, supported by the National Science Foundation and the PSC-CUNY Grants Program, on the efforts of transnational agrarian movements to have the United Nations approve a declaration on the rights of peasants. He is also completing a book on peasant involvement in global civil society movements and transnational networking among small farmer organizations.