Imagine a world with no weekends, no eight-hour working day, no minimum working age and no protection for pregnant or vulnerable workers.
That’s the workplace you might have faced if the International Labour Organization (ILO) did not exist.
Created in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, the ILO is set to mark 100 years of working for social justice.
It is easy now to forget how radical the idea behind the ILO’s mandate was, as summed up in the Preamble to its Constitution: “Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.”
Just as revolutionary was its structure, bringing together governments, workers and employers to determine labour standards. This was described later by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States, as a ‘wild dream’.
At the time of the ILO’s founding, there was increasing understanding of the world’s economic interdependence and the need for cooperation to ensure that growing international competition did not drive down working conditions. As the Constitution put it “…the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.”
These sentiments went on to be enshrined in the foundations of the ILO – literally. When, in 1926, the ILO moved into its first purpose-built offices on the shore of Lake Geneva, the foundation stone was engraved with the Latin phrase, Si vis pacem, cole justiciam (If you desire peace, cultivate justice). The formal gates of the building also reflected the uniqueness of the ILO. They require three keys to open, symbolizing the equal contributions of the three constituent groups.
But, even before the move, the ILO had already made a mark on the working lives of millions of people.
In 1919, the first International Labour Conference (ILC) – the meeting of the constituents – held in Washington DC, adopted six International Labour Conventions dealing with crucial labour issues, including hours of work in industry, unemployment , maternity protection , night work for women, minimum age and night work for young persons in industry.
With the outbreak of conflict in Europe at the end of the 1930’s, the ILO moved temporarily to Canada, becoming one of the few international organizations that functioned uninterrupted throughout the Second World War.
In May 1944, as the war was coming to a close, the ILO adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia . This reaffirmed the ILO’s vision and defined a set of principles that placed human rights at its heart, to meet the “aspirations aroused by hopes for a better world.”
The Declaration’s emphasis on human rights was to bear more fruit, with a series of international labour standards – legally-binding Conventions and advisory Recommendations – dealing with labour inspection, freedom of association, the right to organize and collectively bargain, equal pay, forced labour and discrimination.
The end of the fighting opened the way to a new phase of ILO activity. In 1945 the ILO became the first specialized agency of the newly-formed United Nations.
Another post-war change for the ILO was the expansion of its membership. Industrialized countries became a minority, outweighed by developing economies, and so the essential ILO characteristic, of tripartism, was combined with a second – universality.
In 1969, on its 50th anniversary, the ILO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize . Other important milestones include the ILC’s unanimously-adopted Declaration condemning Apartheid, in 1964 , making the ILO one of the first organizations to impose sanctions on South Africa.
In the 1980’s the ILO also played a major role in the emancipation of Poland from dictatorship, by giving its full support to the legitimacy of the Solidarnosc independent trade union.
As the 20th Century drew to a close, the ILO’s role continued to evolve to meet changes in the world of work, notably the growing march of globalization. Calls for its help expanded to encompass a more diverse range of issues, including the rights of indigenous peoples , HIV/AIDS in the workplace , migrant and domestic workers .
The organization championed the concept of Decent Work as a strategic international development goal, alongside the promotion of a fair globalization. When the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were formally adopted by the international community, decent work was a crucial component, notably for Goal 8 which aims to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.”
January 2019 will bring the launch of the report of the Global Commission on the Future of Work . It will mark the start of a year of global events to mark the achievements of the ILO’s first 100 years and to look ahead to the next.
It is clear that the UN’s first centenarian will have no time to rest on its laurels.
ILO calls on Belarus President to respect workers’ rights and freedoms amid protests
The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Guy Ryder, has called on the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to prevent human rights violations and “ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms” during the wave of protests that have swept the country in recent weeks.
In his letter to the Belarus President, Ryder urged President Lukashenko to release and drop charges against six trade unionists who have been detained by the authorities after participating in peaceful protests and industrial action.
He reminded the President that it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure a climate free from violence, threats or pressure against peacefully protesting workers and that any such allegations should be rapidly and independently investigated.
“I must urge you to do all in your power to prevent the occurrence of human rights violations and ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms,” Ryder’s letter said.
He expressed his deep concern at reports coming out of Belarus on the arrest, detention, imprisonment and mistreatment of workers’ leaders.
‘No one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organizing or participating in a peaceful strike or protest,’ Ryder wrote.
The letter recalls that the ILO has been working with the Belarus government, and the national workers’ and employers’ organizations, for 16 years, helping to address issues raised by an ILO Commission of Inquiry in 2004 which was set up following serious infringements of trade union rights and freedoms in the country.
Ryder notes that while there has been some progress on these issues, “the Commission’s recommendations are far from being fully implemented.”
The intervention by the ILO Director-General follows a request made by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Switzerland: Draft anti-terrorism law sets ‘dangerous precedent’
A proposed new anti-terrorism law in Switzerland could set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of political dissent worldwide, a group of five independent UN human rights experts warned on Friday.
The draft legislation, currently before the Swiss Parliament, expands the definition of terrorism and no longer requires the prospect of any crime at all, they said, in a plea for a last-minute reversal by legislators.
‘Expansive’ definition of terrorism
Citing international standards, the experts defined terrorism as the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through violence that causes death or serious injury, or the taking of hostages.
Under the bill, “terrorist activity” may encompass even lawful acts aimed at influencing or modifying the constitutional order, such as legitimate activities of journalists, civil society and political activists.
“Expanding the definition of terrorism to any non-violent campaign involving the spreading of fear goes far beyond current Swiss domestic law and violates international standards”, said the experts, all of whom were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.
“This excessively expansive definition sets a dangerous precedent and risks serving as a model for authoritarian governments seeking to suppress political dissent including through torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Other sections of the draft law have also raised concerns, such as those giving the federal police extensive authority to designate “potential terrorists” and to decide preventive measures against them.
The rights experts had earlier written to the Swiss authorities, expressing their concerns about the incompatibility of the bill with human rights and international best practices in counter-terrorism. However, no changes were implemented.
“While we recognize the serious security risks posed by terrorism, we very much regret that the Swiss authorities have declined this opportunity to benefit from our technical assistance and expertise on how to combine effective preventive measures with respect for human rights”, they said.
The experts called on Swiss parliamentarians to keep in mind their country’s traditionally strong commitment to human rights, urging them to reject a law which “is bound to become a serious stain on Switzerland’s otherwise strong human rights legacy.”
Burkina Faso: Over 535,000 children under five ‘acutely’ malnourished
New data from UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has revealed worsening nutritional situation for children in Burkina Faso, with more than 535,000 children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition – an unprecedented level.
Among them, some 156,500 children are “severely” malnourished, leaving them nine times more likely to die than well-nourished children, according to UNICEF.
“The aggravating factors causing the nutritional situation of children to deteriorate are primarily linked to the displacement of populations due to insecurity, reduced access to livelihoods and reduced access to health care and nutrition,” said James Mugaju, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Burkina Faso.
“The coronavirus pandemic has had a brutal impact on households and their ability to provide for the basic needs of their children. Children are paying the highest price, facing a triple crisis: security, health and food,” he added.
Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, has over one million internally displaced persons – 60 per cent of whom are children, and 3.3 million suffer from acute food insecurity.
Worst affected regions
According to the survey, the town of Gorom-Gorom in the Sahel region and the Barsalogho site for internally displaced persons in the Centre-Nord region are worst affected, where children under five suffering from global acute malnutrition recorded 18.4 per cent and 16.1 per cent, respectively. The figures exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) emergency threshold of 15 per cent.
Equally alarming is the situation in Dori, Gorgadji, Bourzanga and Fada N’Gourma communes, all of which have a high prevalence of global acute malnutrition, ranging from 12.5 per cent to 13.6 per cent. Children in the Barsalogho, Kongoussi, Ouahigouya, Kaya and Matiacoali communes also have concerning prevalence rates of acute malnutrition, ranging from 8.6 per cent to 9.6 per cent.
Areas where children are particularly affected by acute malnutrition are also those with the highest number of acutely food-insecure families, said UNICEF, calling for intensified efforts to ensure the continuity of nutrition services to provide an integrated package of prevention and treatment of malnutrition to reach the children in urgent need.
“This is essential because good nutrition for children, from their first days and months, protects them from disease and infection, and helps them to recover when they fall ill,” said Mr. Mugaju.
UNICEF and its partners have stepped up their response. Community health workers have been mobilized to travel to the most remote areas to screen and treat malnourished children at the community level, where they also provide advice on the best feeding practices for infants and young children, including in emergency situations.
The UN agency is also supporting health authorities and is strengthening efforts to procure and deliver therapeutic foods, such as milk and ready-to-use therapeutic foods, to treat acute malnutrition. More than 52,600 cartons or about 737 tonnes of therapeutic food have been delivered to healthcare facilities and 51,685 children with severe acute malnutrition have been treated since January 2020.
UNICEF Deputy Representative James Mugaju highlighted the importance of working together to support children.
“Well-nourished girls and boys ensure good physical and cognitive development, which will give them equal opportunities to grow up fulfilled and reach their full potential,” he said.
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