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ILO team finds limited impact of new legislation against forced labour in Myanmar; Suggests action for further progress

GENEVA ( ILO News) - Despite new legislation introduced just one year ago, forced labour still exists in Myanmar, according to a report from an International Labour Office (ILO) High-Level Team.

Press release | 07 November 2001

GENEVA ( ILO News) - Despite new legislation introduced just one year ago, forced labour still exists in Myanmar, according to a report * from an International Labour Office (ILO) High-Level Team.

Forced labour previously had been found to be a widespread practice in Myanmar by a Commission of Inquiry, established under relevant ILO constitutional provisions, in 1998.

As a result of the action taken by the competent organs of the ILO and following two technical cooperation missions sent by its Director-General, Juan Somavia, the Myanmar authorities agreed in October 2000, for the first time, to adopt a framework of legislative, executive and administrative measures making all practices of forced labour illegal and a criminal offense for all authorities including the military.

On 19 May this year, the authorities further accepted an objective ILO assessment to be freely carried out within the country as regards the "practical implementation and actual impact" of that new legislation on the realities of forced labour as previously established. The High-Level Team was appointed by the Director-General to carry out this assessment and its report, after four weeks of investigation from 17 September to 13 October, 2001, has just been made public.

While recognizing that the new legislation has been the object of a wide, although uneven, dissemination across the country, the report finds that its impact on the realities has been limited. In particular forced labour is practised in its various forms (portering, building of military camps, agricultural work, etc.) in areas affected by military presence and especial in border areas where fighting may still be ongoing.

The report identifies three obstacles which might explain the limited result: the "self reliance policy" of the army (in particular the wide discretion left to local commanders as to the means appropriate to carry out their over-riding objective of safeguarding the territorial integrity of the country); the de facto impunity of the military from criminal prosecution notwithstanding the new legislation (itself due in part to the lack of confidence of victims in the legal and judicial system and the fear of reprisals); and the lack of alternative financial and practical arrangements by the authorities to carry out public works calling on forced labour.

The High-Level Team notes that "the diversity and magnitude of these obstacles may seem discouraging". However, taking into account the progress accomplished through dialogue over the last year, and the commitment which the acceptance of the assessment seems to reflect on the part of the authorities, the High-Level Team goes on to offer guidance about possible ways to overcome the obstacles.

It points out three interlocking parameters: economic modernization; a consistent implementation by the authorities proclaimed political will to eliminate forced labour and, finally, the engagement of the international community.

The eradication of forced labour is seen by the High-Level Team as an essential element of a broader modernization of the country. However, this modernization requires international involvement which cannot be accomplished unless the authorities themselves give more cogent evidence of their determination to fulfill their obligations than is apparent from its report.

One way to reconcile these various prerequisites could be found through the establishment of an ombudsman having the required national and international credibility to investigate cases as well as the acceptance of an ILO representation or presence in Myanmar which could assist the authorities in the effective application of the new legislation and strengthen the confidence of victims in seeking redress.

In its conclusion the High-Level Team refutes the notion that forced labour could be explained by reference to a particular religious or cultural context. It insists that it is a phenomenon which over time has plagued, and is still plaguing under various forms, many societies, and is now rejected as an offence to human dignity wherever it takes place.

The Team expresses its conviction that the eradication of forced labour represents not only the discharge of a fundamental moral and legal obligation for Myanmar but also offers an historic opportunity for this country to accomplish its modernization.

The High-Level Team was composed of Sir Ninian Stephen, former Governor General of Australia and former judge of the U.N. International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda (Chair person), Mrs. Nieves Roldan-Confesor, former Minister of Labour of the Philippines and former Chairman of the Governing Body of the ILO (Vice-Chair), Mr. Kulatilaka Ranasinghe, retired Chief Justice of Sri Lanka and Mr. Jerzy Makarczyk, formerly Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland, currently Judge at the European Court of Human Rights.

The High-Level Team spent three weeks in Myanmar and one in Thailand to carry out its assessment. The report acknowledges that the Myanmar authorities fully honoured their commitment under the agreement to leave to the High-Level Team complete discretion to establish and implement its programme of work as it wished.

At the same time the report recognizes that there were inherent limitations in the assessment process in Myanmar as it was only able to visit certain parts of the country and the persons interviewed might not always have felt completely free to speak with its members. This is one reason why the High-Level Team decided to also carry out meetings and interviews across the Thai border.

* " Developments concerning the question of the observance by the Government of Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29): Report of the High-Level Team", GB.282/4, International Labour Office, Geneva, November 2001.
For more information, contact Mr. Francis Maupain (+4122/799-6520) or Mr. Kari Tapiola (+4122/799-6324).