Opening the jail doors for workers and employers

IN December 1985, Habib Achour, a 74-year-old trade union leader in Tunisia, was arrested and sentenced to several terms of imprisonment for labor activities. Mr. Achour, who is secretary-general of the Confederation of Tunisian Workers, was not to have been set free before December 1992. But he is free today, largely because of efforts of the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO). After a period of house arrest, the Tunisian authorities lifted all restrictions on his freedom of movement.

Mr. Achour's release is not an isolated case. Beyene Solomon, an Ethiopian trade unionist, was locked up by government authorities, but later freed after ILO intervention. Elsewhere in the world, in Turkey and Nicaragua, for example, many workers - and employers - have had their imprisonment shortened or annulled through ILO efforts. The ILO took up the case of four leaders of employers' organizations in Nicaragua. After nearly a year in prison, the case against them was dismissed.

One African trade unionist even traveled all the way to Geneva to convey in person his gratitude to the office for securing his release from prison.

Not all cases have been successful. Vitaie Jacassa, a representative of Argentine employers, disappeared without a trace in the early '80s, and is still missing. Despite the ILO's efforts throughout the dark days of military repression, Mr. Jacassa's fate is still unknown.

This kind of work is one of the least publicized facets of this agency's work. Forty years ago it set up watchdog machinery to monitor cases of violations of the right of association of workers and employers worldwide. Over the years it has dealt with a total of 1,446 complaints, ranging from arrests and imprisonment to death squad beatings and killings of trade unionists.

Last year alone, the ILO's supervisory bodies examined complaints against the governments of some 40 countries. During the first four months of this year, the ILO has received 16 complaints.

There are 150 nations that are members of the ILO and support the principles and philosophy of this specialized United Nations agency. Yet the organization continues to receive complaints against many of its members in all parts of the globe. The fact that these states have submitted themselves to being questioned by the ILO about these complaints is in itself a barometer of the impartiality of this international organization. And this impartiality is the ILO's most powerful weapon in attacking human rights violations. ILO criticism has often angered or irritated governments directly concerned. The organization itself has also been criticized by others for doing both too little and too much.

The number of complaints about violation of freedom of association reaching the agency is uncomfortably high. In authoritarian regimes, the ILO's efforts on behalf of the victims have often helped to provide the seeds of labor law reforms when these regimes are replaced by democratic governments. Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Uruguay are all examples. Current efforts by the organization in the human rights field are under way in Nicaragua and Panama.

Many breakthroughs have been gained through quiet diplomacy. During the past 15 years, numerous missions have been sent to member countries in an attempt to persuade the governments to annul their actions.

The main emphasis is always on persuasion rather than on confrontation. Persuasion usually yields more than condemnation. Only when all persuasive efforts fail can the organization resort to setting up an independent commission of inquiry and publishing its findings. These findings do not carry mandatory powers of enforcement, but their moral influence has been salutary.

Human rights violations have been endemic in human society from time immemorial, and it would be naive to expect them to disappear so long as there are authoritarian regimes.

Nevertheless, the efforts of the ILO and other agencies have helped reduce the number of such violations and to raise public awareness of the need to eliminate this evil from all parts of the world.

Francis Blanchard is director general of the International Labor Organization.

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