Supervising Labour Standards and Human Rights: The Case of Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma)

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Supervising labour standards and human rights: The case of forced labour in Myanmar (Burma)*

This report reveals a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population inhabiting Myanmar by the Government, military and other public officers. It is a story of gross denial of human rights to which the people of Myanmar have been subjected particularly since 1988 and from which they find no escape except fleeing from the country. The Government, the military and the administration seem oblivious to the human rights of the people and are trampling upon them with impunity. Their actions gravely offend human dignity and have [a] debasing effect on the civil society. History shows that where human rights are denied or violated in any part of the world, it is bound to have a chain effect on the other parts of the world (ILO, 1998a, para. 543, p. 160).

This passage is from the last paragraph of the concluding observations of the Report of the Commission of Inquiry appointed under article 26 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organization to examine the observance by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29). It gives some idea of the seriousness of the situation prevailing in that country, not only in regard to the exploitation of forced labour, but also in terms of violations of human rights generally. There are several reasons why this report is important. The first lies in the acuteness of the suffering and abuses of human dignity it denounces - and it does so with the authority of an international judicial procedure. Second, it focuses on an international labour standard that protects a fundamental human right - the right not to be reduced to a state of slavery or forced labour, whichever form this may take. A particular difficulty in supervising the application of such standards is that the facts are often simply denied. Lastly, the report is the outcome of protracted efforts by the ILO's supervisory bodies which has brought into play all existing procedures concerning ratified Conventions.'

Before looking at the facts denounced in the report and the Commission's conclusions, this perspective will begin by recalling how, both historically and under international law, the prohibition of forced labour became a standard of universal reference and how the ILO's supervisory machinery operates in a case like Myanmar's. The third part of the perspective examines the specific features of supervision of the application of international labour standards relating to fundamental human rights. The concluding section brings the events up to date and puts them in the broader context of ILO action.

Forced labour: A crime under international law

The international community's first actions against forced labour were taken in the framework of efforts to abolish the slave trade. In 1815, the States participating in the Congress of Vienna expressed their desire "to put an end to a scourge which had desolated Africa, degraded Europe and afflicted humanity for so long" (ILO, 1998a, para. 199, p. 63). This paved the way for the adoption of several multilateral instruments over the next century, and of much national legislation prohibiting this practice and coordinating action to suppress it.

From the League of Nations to the United Nations

After the First World War, slavery and slavery-like practices were among the first issues addressed by the League of Nations. The Slavery Convention of 1926 specified for the first time the components which constitute slavery under international law, and bound its signatories "to take all necessary measures to prevent compulsory or forced labour from developing into conditions analogous to slavery" (United Nations, 1994, p. 203, art. 5).

A further step was taken after the Second World War with the adoption of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery in 1956. …