Improving worker rights through global pressure

CERTAIN issues, such as human rights, transcend national sovereignty. Nations jealously guard their independence and sovereignty; but that does not give license to a state to oppress its peoples or violate fundamental principles of human rights, so clearly spelled out in the United Nations Charter.

External pressure to end such oppression is too often regarded by dictators and demagogues as interference in their domestic affairs. But no nation, whatever its ideological complexion, has the right to deny its citizens freedom of conscience, of assembly, and of association.

Strangely, where such denials do take place, they are rarely recognized as such by those guilty of them. These measures are justified, they say, or they are the byproduct of some higher interest of public safety.

The international community has a responsibility to help diminish the scope of such abuse by exerting moral and other pressure on those who place illegal curbs on their own people. The world community endorsed this principle with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN in 1984. The world body has since strengthened and codified this declaration by two additional covenants; these represent a multilateral commitment to protect human rights and to ensure the economic, social, and cultural freedom of all peoples.

Almost all governments have officially recognized the civil and political rights of their citizens. Many however violate the principles even as they publicly support the UN covenants. We at the International Labor Organization have had long experience with this dual approach. Some states arrest and detain (and in some cases even kill) trade unionists, seize their assets, or otherwise try to curb workers' basic rights. In many cases, the ILO's intervention through fact-finding, conciliation, and adjudication has proved effective in getting detained workers released and oppressive legislation annulled.

Over the years, several hundred people have benefited from the ILO's active intervention. That would not have been possible without the weight of endorsement of the ILO action from most of its 150 member states. On several occasions, workers released from detention as a result of ILO intervention have come personally to Geneva to convey their gratitude.

Clearly a multilateral effort to protect human rights can and does work. Regimes dismissing bilateral attempts by individuals or particular states as outside interference in their internal affairs often exhibit great wariness in dealing with global groups such as the ILO. Sensitivity to global condemnation of their actions often makes them ease the pressure on their opponents. No regime likes to have an accusing finger pointed at it.

Take, for example, South Africa's policy of apartheid. The sustained campaign by the ILO, other UN bodies, and individual states has had some impact on the Pretoria regime. The emergence of independent black trade unions inside South Africa, and the economic and political sanctions against the apartheid regime imposed by many nations have contributed to the winds of change now sweeping across the country. Sustained international pressure will, I believe, bring about an end to racial discrimination in South Africa sooner or later.

Still, it would be unrealistic to expect all instances of human rights violations to be eliminated through a concerted multilateral campaign. There are too many nations at different levels of development where the practice of human rights has yet to find deep roots. While affluence does not invariably imply progress on human rights, poverty and underdevelopment do tend to be seedbeds for oppression of individual rights. Economic difficulties spell insecurity to the powers that be; official insecurity is too often the excuse to limit workers' rights.

Human rights is not a luxury to be enjoyed by the democracies of the industrialized world. But the economic and social climate in many parts of the developing world is still somewhat inhospitable to these liberal principles. Yet, certain parameters for the protection of essential freedoms should be enforced.

The ILO strategy in tackling this problem, although confined to the labor area, has been largely successful. The moral weight of ILO's involvement is admittedly higher because the organization represents the will of all the social partners in society - the governments, employers, and the workers. It is worth recalling that this mixed strategy of conciliation and moral persuasion has yielded consistently good results. Of some 1,400 complaints of violation of the freedom of association examined by the ILO over the years, the vast majority have been resolved with the cooperation of the governments concerned. Governments generally are acutely sensitive to their public image; they dislike exposure of violations of human rights conventions - especially those which they have freely ratified.

History is full of instances of human rights violations by governments for political, religious, or other reasons. Development of rapid communications and faster travel has shrunk our planet to such an extent that it is virtually impossible for any nation to insulate itself from events in other parts of the globe. This interdependence underscores the importance and relevance of multilateral efforts to protect human rights. The experience of ILO over its 68-year existence clearly shows that violations of basic freedoms of the society at large can be tackled effectively through application of moral pressure at the international level.

The whole issue of multilateralism and its future role in tackling global issues such as human rights violations, or for that matter, economic and political problems that confront us today, will be discussed by government, employer, and worker delegates from the 150 member states of the ILO at the International Labor Conference in June this year. My report to the conference will focus on the future of multilateralism which, in my view, will play a key role in tackling the challenges that lie ahead.

Francis Blanchard is director general of the International Labor Organization.

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