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RIGHTS-PARAGUAY: More Than a Rap on the Knuckles

David Vargas

ASUNCIÓN, Dec 5 2007 (IPS) - The Paraguayan government was reprimanded by a United Nations expert committee for the extent and degree of poverty in the country, the denial of land to campesinos and indigenous people, the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals and the persistence of discrimination against women.

The criticisms were made by the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in Geneva after analysing the Paraguayan government’s official report on the fulfilment of its obligations under the International Covenant on ESCR, which the U.N. Committee oversees.

The report failed to satisfy the members of the Committee, who said that they regretted that most of the recommendations made at the previous session, in 1996, had not been fully implemented.

Paraguay has not effectively addressed the causes of concern raised in response to its first report, which remain valid, said the Committee in a document released Tuesday by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Asunción, which communicates the final statement and recommendations of the CESCR’s 39th session, held Nov. 5-23.

The Committee was “concerned that, despite the economic growth seen in recent years, the number of people living in extreme poverty had increased in Paraguay.”

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the number of extremely poor Paraguayans increased from 778,500 in 1997 to more than 1.2 million in 2007, equivalent to 21 percent of the country’s population of over six million.

The 18 independent experts on the Committee also “deplored the slowness of agrarian reform in the country,” and the situation of campesino (peasant farmer) and indigenous communities that lack access to land.

The CESCR’s observations are set out in a 36-point document which emphasises concern about the heavy concentration of land ownership, the high proportion of the population without social protection, the large number of child workers and the lack of guaranteed access to healthcare.

The CESCR was created in 1985 by the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to oversee implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in each country. It operates under the aegis of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Committee also warned that expansion of soybean cultivation has resulted in indiscriminate use of toxic agrochemicals, which have caused death and illness among children and adults, water pollution, destruction of ecosystems and loss of traditional food resources in rural communities.

The criticisms were a bucket of cold water for the administration of President Nicanor Duarte, in the middle of the campaign for the April 2008 general elections.

No official at the Foreign Ministry was willing to comment on the CESCR’s conclusions, in response to queries by IPS.

NGO representatives, in contrast, were delighted with the outcome.

“This is like a victory, because these are historic demands that the government has ignored, and that now the international community is taking up and supporting,” Idalina Gómez, a lawyer with the ecumenical Church Committee for Emergency Aid (CIPAE), told IPS.

CIPAE was one of the 20 Paraguayan civil society organisations which submitted an alternative report of their own, condemning rights violations in Paraguay, to the CESCR in Geneva.

The civil society report focused on four principles enshrined in the International Covenant: the rights to food, housing, access to water and to land.

“We wanted to show that one of the main problems in the rural areas, where 42 percent of the population live, and in indigenous communities, is land ownership,” Marcial Gómez of the National Campesino Federation told IPS.

According to the social organisations, the sternness of the CESCR’s response is also a reflection on the lack of seriousness shown by Asunción in drawing up its official report.

CIPAE’s lawyer complained that “the government delegation’s presentation in Geneva was deplorable. It was just a compilation of information which didn’t follow the guidelines for writing the report, and had no real data or reliable statistics. The official Paraguayan report was substandard and full of flaws.”

The Committee made several recommendations to the Paraguayan state, such as reducing extreme poverty and improving social development strategies through tax reforms to foment wealth redistribution in both urban and rural areas.

It said “the Paraguayan state should intensify its efforts with regard to a restitution of their traditional land to indigenous peoples,” and that when parcels of land are allocated to campesinos, this should go hand-in-hand with technical assistance, credit and basic infrastructure.

Asunción was also urged to adopt measures guaranteeing equal working conditions for men and women, and to take urgent action to reduce unemployment and the informal economy, in which 80 percent of the economically active population work.

Another urgent measure recommended by the experts is the regulation of soy plantations and the use of agrochemicals.

In addition to enforcing the law on toxic agrochemicals, the state should create an effective legal framework to protect against the use of these products, and carry out frequent and thorough inspections, the Committee document says.

The social organisations were hoping that the Committee would send observers to Paraguay, but this did not happen.

However, according to CIPAE, the final decision has yet to be made. Gómez said that the Committee members showed great interest in following up one particular complaint in the alternative report submitted by the NGOs.

The case in question is that of Ypecuá, a campesino squatter camp 300 kilometres from Asunción, where the people are “on the one hand struggling for land of their own, and on the other battling to survive the pollution caused by indiscriminate spraying of toxic agrochemicals by big landowners on their soybean crops,” Gómez said.

The CESCR experts requested more information about this case, to help them decide whether to send observers to study the situation in Ypecuá first-hand.

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