ILO head to go to Seattle, and "make known" ILO views

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 18 Nov 99 -- Juan Somavia, the Director-General of the International Labour Office, announced in a press release Thursday that he will lead an ILO delegation to the WTO meeting and Seattle, where he is an invited observer without right to speak at the Conference.

Only those observers, intergovernmental and governmental, who are observers at the General Council have a right to speak at the Ministerial Session. The ILO is only an observer to the Services Council, as are similar international organizations to WTO bodies subordinate to the General Council.

Somavia has been meeting several developing country delegations trying to persuade them to extend him a full invitation and the right to speak, and has been explaining to them his own approach to the trade and labour rights issue.

But several of the developing countries have said that his speaking at the ILO would only help to provide justification for the WTO to take jurisdiction in these matters, even if Somavia argues against it at the Conference, and hence they do not favour it.

At the 13 informal HOD meeting of the WTO, Pakistan and a few others warned that bringing the labour issue, or the ILO invitation issue to the Seattle meet would wreck that conference.

But the statement issued by the ILO head suggests that he has decided to go to Seattle any way and be present at the conference, in effect embarrassing those opposed to the ILO full observer rights or participation.

But there are many who fear that Somavia may end up by reducing his own dignity. The move may ultimately win for the ILO the support of the organized labour in the North, and the Northern governments, and the labour unions that will be demonstrating at Seattle, but the ILO will end up alienating many more of the developing countries.

The ILO, Somavia's statement said, has a "compelling institutional interest" in being present at Seattle. "The process under way in the WTO and the very wide public debate on it, makes it clear that issues of direct and pressing concern to the ILO will be discussed at the Conference."

Mr Somavia cited the Singapore declaration about labour standards and the ILO as the competent body, and the WTO and ILO secretariats to "continue their existing collaboration".

Though he did not cite it, the Chairman of the Conference at Singapore made clear at the Conference itself that this collaboration gave no new mandate to the secretariat, but in effect only the exchange of information and documents etc between the two secretariats.

"It is not for the ILO to intervene in the WTO's decision-making processes or to comment on any of the proposals before it.

"Indeed, my presence in Seattle is unrelated to any question of addressing the Ministerial Conference. Equally, it is for the tripartite Governing Body of the ILO... to consider any implications for the Organization arising from the outcome of the Conference," said Somavia.

But the statement does not clarify how his presence is unrelated to any question of his addressing the conference, while at the same time he will make known from Seattle the ILO views.

Somavia then declared: "It is my intention to make known from Seattle the new orientation and thrust of the ILO and the recent steps taken to strengthen its capacity to fulfil its mandate of seeking social justice with economic growth...." After referring to the ILO's recent Declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work and the recently adopted child labour convention, Somavia added: "It is also my intention to address the social dimensions of globalization. We must understand that the benefits of the global economy are not reaching enough people. The backlash is brewing and growing, and will be heard in Seattle. At the ILO, we believe new directions are necessary to make markets work for everybody. The WTO Conference is an opportunity to make trade relevant to the needs of developing countries and working families." (SUNS4555)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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