This article considers the role played by the language of human rights in a global campaign for food sovereignty. Led initially by the international peasants’ movement, Vía Campesina, the campaign opposes the globalisation of agricultural markets and neoliberal interventions in food production. Alongside other strategies, the campaign makes creative use of human rights and also seeks their institutionalisation in a UN Declaration on the rights of peasants. An examination of how the campaign employs human rights reveals a more complicated process than that suggested by the theoretical polarisation of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ accounts of rights development in the sociology of human rights. It demonstrates both wariness of state power and attempts to harness the power of the state against international forces. It also shows that a desire for legal reform co-exists with the struggle for more radical social and political transformations.