I have now twice attended the International Labour Organisation’s conference in Geneva. The ILO is the largest division within the United Nations. It’s 100 years old this year and South Africa was a founder member in 1911. We have been participating ever since. The ILO has the general task of setting and overseeing international labour standards. Every year in the northern summer all 183 member states gather at the UN buildings and ILO head office in Geneva to propose, debate and adopt standards and resolutions on work and workers. It is a tripartite system of business, labour and government and if you can picture a committee room with representatives from those three sectors times 183 countries sitting in three blocks and negotiating a 25-page resolution in four or five languages with interpreters and drafting or amending a text simultaneously in three languages, that will give you some idea of how it operates.
What impressed me most about this conference over the past two sessions was the performance of the South African delegates. Having experienced some extremely poor service from civil servants in SA, I witnessed the total opposite at the ILO. South Africa completely dominated many debates. Our representatives often spoke on behalf of the entire African continent and we chaired several of the committees and panels. Watching chairpersons from other countries, I must say we can be proud of our team. We certainly demonstrated the best leadership skills. Our representatives also often win debates and form global thinking on several issues, and as a result of Codesa and Nedlac, we are used to tripartism and this level of sophisticated debate. They are racially representative of the population of SA. Some of our women held the chair of 183 countries and, unlike examples in our national Parliament, these individuals were there because of their abilities, no tokenism was apparent. It makes one wonder why we choose our foreign representatives so well, yet often choose so badly at home.
The ILO, however, expects countries that participate to adopt resolutions that are passed and amend their own national laws to fit these minimum standards. It then “polices’” countries who do not comply with these standards or who are guilty of human rights violations, particularly as they affect governments, workers or employers. During this year’s conference I sat in on the committee tasked with discipline (the application of standards committee) and watched Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Congo, Panama and other countries being dragged before it and facing censure. Swaziland was accused of mistreating union officials and the media by imprisoning them and ill-treating them in prison.
The real shocker for me was the case against the Congo. Part of this year’s report on the Congo reads: “In the Kivus Province armed groups and military units were engaged in mining and forced civilians to work. These civilians were subjected to blackmail, illegal taxation and sexual exploitation. Women and girls were kept by both armed groups and the state military as sexual slaves and suffered further violence.” I almost wept listening to the accounts. What was even more infuriating, was that the DRC did not even pitch up to defend its case or explain. They were severely denounced by all speakers. It made me feel angry at my fellow Africans in the Congo.
Unfortunately the power of the application of standards committee and the ILO to discipline, enforce or punish such cases is very limited. They issue sanctions, embarrass such countries in the media, use peer pressure and ultimately the Security Council gets to deal with pariah states. I think if a documentary were made of the behaviour of the soldiers and government of the Congo and the rebels there, I believe the world would be shocked in the extreme.
The story doesn’t end there, however. During this year’s conference, governing body titular (full) members and deputy members had to be elected again for a three-year term. South Africa submitted its nomination fairly late in the process, as I understand, although we have been on the governing body for many years. We began to hear rumours during the day preceding the vote, that Western countries, possibly with the help of certain of South Africa’s neighbours, were lobbying for other African countries to be elected this time and for South Africa to be excluded because we were too outspoken, wouldn’t toe the line and had been in leadership too long. Countries more compliant to Western powers were more desirable. All of this, of course, is conjecture. South Africa, it seems, had not done much lobbying.
The results the next day were, however, concrete and quite astounding. South Africa was not chosen from among the 183 governments to serve on the governing body. However, what was far, far more telling was that the world’s voting countries chose Congo to sit as a full titular member on the governing body and two other countries under strong censure for human rights violations, Zimbabwe and Sudan, were elected as deputy governing body members. Now let me put this in perspective. In the same 24-hour period, the world denounces these three countries for extreme human rights violations and then almost simultaneously elects them to the highest leadership of the same organisation that is censuring them. These elections are democratic, on a one-country, one-vote basis. It’s shocking. It left me with the feeling that the UN and its institutions need serious reform. The absence of ethics in this kind of behaviour left me wondering where the UN and the ILO are heading? Are pariah states being cultivated by those with more power?
My final observation of the UN came about as a result of attending a session of what is known as an “Informal” sitting of the UN Human Rights Council. South Africa was proposing a full resolution on gay rights regarding violence meted out to the gay community in the form of “corrective rape” and similar abuses. South Africa chaired the sitting and was supported by many countries that would normally support gay rights, but only Egypt, Botswana (and previously Ghana) had attended from Africa, and almost no country from the Organisation of Islamic States. I was suddenly imposed upon to give an unprepared speech and spoke about the urgency of setting international standards and calling on countries to end violence against the LGBT community. Egypt became quite upset by the fact that South Africa was going ahead with the resolution without first caucusing with the Africa group. The chairman pushed ahead. After several more meetings to refine the proposal, it was formally put to the vote at the Human Rights Commission and passed 23 votes to 19 with three abstentions. South Africa thus became the first country to get a gay rights resolution approved by the UN Human Rights Commission. I was again proud to be a South African.
The world is clearly a complex place in which to operate and internationally countries do not often appear to take the moral high ground, but tend to feather their own interests only. I left the ILO and the UN with the impression that the UN as an Institution is sorely needed, but that a much-reformed UN is going to be required if we want to move towards better international relations, better working conditions and human rights being protected and defended de rigueur in every corner of the globe. DM
Ian Ollis is the Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister of labour and an MP