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UN Labor Agency Considers Taking Burma to International Court over Forced Labor

  • Roger Wilkison

The International Labor Organization says it is prepared to take Burma to the International Court of Justice because the country's military regime continues to use forced labor, despite promising to end the practice.

The ILO, as the Geneva-based UN labor agency is known, says Burma continues to violate the international convention on forced labor.

The agency says negotiations with the government to end the practice have gone nowhere, and it doubts the Burmese regime is negotiating in good faith.

Richard Horsey, the ILO's liaison officer for Burma, says the agency will submit its documentation on Burmese forced labor to the UN Security Council, which has put Burma's human rights situation on its agenda for the first time.

And, he says, the ILO will approach the International Criminal Court, where prosecutors could conclude that Burma's forced labor practices constitute both war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"The governing body decided to do this because it was very concerned at the widespread existence of forced labor, and because of a lack of progress in working with the government there to address the problem."

According to the ILO, the Burmese military regime continues to press-gang civilians into unpaid work, mainly to aid the military and to work on roads and other infrastructure projects. It says the worst forms of forced labor are related to military
activities in ethnic minority areas, where the army is fighting rebels.

During its annual conference last June, the ILO asked Burma, where forced labor is officially outlawed, to release all people imprisoned for reporting labor law abuses.

The agency says the Burmese government announced a moratorium on prosecuting such whistleblowers people who report wrongdoing soon afterwards, and also released two activists who had reported violations. But the ILO says there is no
sign that forced labor itself has declined.

Horsey says progress in eliminating forced labor can only be made if the Burmese government cooperates.

"And so, the government has to show its good faith and cooperation, and, specifically, we need agreement on a mechanism for dealing with complaints of forced labor, complaints by victims."

Horsey says the door is still open for dialogue with the Burmese government. But the ILO has made it clear that the generals who run the country have to come up with a proposal to end forced labor if they want to avoid further UN action.

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