Human Rights Law and Freedom of Association: Development through ILO Supervision

By Swepston, Lee | International Labour Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Human Rights Law and Freedom of Association: Development through ILO Supervision


Swepston, Lee, International Labour Review


Lee SWEPSTON *

There were two striking developments in 1948 in the nascent field of international human rights law. The first in time was the adoption by the ILO of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (No. 87); the second was the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a few months later.' The close relation between some aspects of the two at the time has been maintained through the ILO's supervisory process ever since.

The Universal Declaration is, of course, of great importance to the ILO in its work for the promotion and defence of human rights. As the ILO's Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations stated in the report of its 1997 Session:

The Universal Declaration ... is generally accepted as a point of reference for human rights throughout the world, and as the basis for most of the standard setting that has been carried out in the United Nations and in many other organizations since then. ... The ILO's standards and practical activities on human rights are closely related to the universal values laid down in the Declaration, ... [T]he ILO's standards on human rights along with the instruments adopted in the UN and in other international organizations give practical application to the general expressions of human aspirations made in the Universal Declaration, and have translated into binding terms the principles of that noble document. 2

It is of particular interest to the ILO that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims in its Article 23, paragraph 4, that: "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests." This is a more specific manifestation of the right laid down in article 20 of the Universal Declaration to "the right of freedom of peaceful assembly and association".

The inclusion of this principle in the Universal Declaration had been preceded by its inclusion in three important ILO instruments. The first of these is the ILO's Constitution, which in its original version as Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles proclaimed that the High Contracting Parties considered that the right of association "for all lawful purposes" is of "special and urgent importance", both for workers and employers. 3 The Preamble to the Constitution explicitly cites trade union rights among the measures that could improve working conditions and thus assure peace. When in 1944 the ILO adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia, the second of these fundamental texts, and in 1946 incorporated it into the Constitution, it reaffirmed freedom of association as one of the fundamental principles on which the Organization was based, and characterized it as "essential to sustained progress". It also referred to "the effective recognition of the right of collective bargaining, the co-operation of management and labour in the continuous improvement of productive efficiency, and the collaboration of workers and employers in the preparation and application of social and economic measures".

The third of these fundamental texts was the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87). The adoption of a specific Convention on this subject in the ILO was not easy, as is outlined in Harold Dunning's article in this issue of the International Labour Review. It was put off many times as being too difficult to agree on, and its lack began to be felt early. In 1921, the ILO adopted the Right of Association (Agriculture) Convention (No. 11), which recognized in very general terms that workers in agriculture have the same rights of association as workers in industry - but at the time the ILO had not yet defined the freedom of association rights of industrial workers.

When the time did come, events moved fairly quickly. In the ILO itself, the 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia contained the provision mentioned above. …

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