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The statement below by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees,  2 weeks
after the ILO Report on Forced Labour in Burma, calls for comment at the
very least -- for instance at the UNHCR Executive Committee (EXCOM) which
meets in Geneva from 5-9 October. EXCOM is made up of 53 governments (see
list below). 

Perhaps Burma groups, human rights groups, trade unions, refugee
organisations and others could talk to each other and their governments
(whether they are EXCOM members or observer governments) and get them to
speak up at EXCOM. Specifically, they could address the dangers of
repatriations to Burma under present conditions, whether from Bangladesh,
India or Thailand (there are many who fear that if/when UNHCR has a formal
role in the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand, the agency might be used to
legitimise repatriation in less than ideal circumstances). In addition,
speakers might press for  a stronger protection/human rights component in
UNHCR activities. 

It would be helpful if approaches to governments were not limited to North
America and Europe, but also included countries in Asia, Central and South
America and Africa. UN agencies and a lot of NGOs attend EXCOM, and they
too could be asked to lobby on these issues.

An important point to make is that the ILO report, which is the most
extensive and authoritative document on human rights in Burma ever issued,
describes not only forced labour, but also contains testimonies of the
killings, torture, including rape and deprivation of food and medicine,
beatings and other forms of ill treatment and the coercion of young
children into forced labour, along with other abuses which are a regular
feature of life in Burma, especially in the border areas,and which
frequently accompany forced portering and other forms of forced labour in
that country.  

David Arnott

Geneva 23/Sept/98


     Transcript by Burma Centrum Nederland of press conference by 
     Mrs. Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees
     The Hague, September 1, 1998

On UNHCR's repatriation and reintegration programme of Rohingya's (a Muslim
minority) in Rakhine State, Burma

"Forced labour is an old tradition, it is something like a taxation, the
poorer you are, the more often you are called in. I am not saying it is
good or bad. People who have left Burma are traditionally more deprived
people. They fled for various reasons, in 1970, again in 1993 250.000
people left. Bangladesh is also poor, and determined to sent them back. We
had to intervene, help Bangladesh. UNHCR negotiated their return. To help
return the Rohingya's the most important thing is to give them confidence
that they would not be subject to persecution or suppression or oppressive
measures. The most important thing is to secure international presence in
Rakhine State. This was something I did negotiate with the Burmese, it was
very difficult, and we were able to get their agreement.
        Our own objective was to build confidence by being there, to
provide a
system in a way that they will be anchored. So the grass root operation
required such as like agricultural, education, sanitation, various health
measures, we brought it.
        The question of labour came up sometimes, forced labour. That
labour was being carried out in a way that really made the life of the
people difficult. Sometimes we were able to stop it, sometimes we were able
to contain it. In this sense  230.000 people gone back, they are anchored
much more. Usually with our operation, when people go back to their own
country, we stayed one year or one-and-a-half, but in this case for two
reasons we stay longer. First of all we still need a presence to protect
them. Also in a very backward place like Rakhine State, unless you take
more time to help them to get anchored, more development kind of work,
longer term, the situation is very fragile. So we have to take on.
        Fortunately this has became much more recognised. The European
has recently send a mission examining the kind of work we are doing, and
came up with the conclusion that the UN presence was absolutely necessary
and they have asked us to continue. If we stop you will find people fleeing
        Forced labour in Rakhine State is not an every day every night kind
work, it is a periodical one. We would not like to have that, but if that
is the way to some extent it is carried out, and people can bear it, it is
one way of settling. Of course we would like this to be a much more
voluntary contribution to your community work, I mean sometimes they do it
voluntarily, others they have been given an obligation, and how many days
of work and that kind of thing. But it is one way of helping the people
settle in their own country. If they go back to Bangladesh they will be
sent back again. So you see people cannot really choose were to live that

Question: But is not forced labour a human rights violation?

"It depends on how you define forced labour and how you define human rights
violation. I think it has to be understood practically in the context of
your community and their tradition, and then the limited choice these
people have. I am not saying this is a good arrangement, but what else, we
have intervened several times, and we have been able to contain forced
labour practically of the kind that is seriously a cause for human rights
violations. But you have to really understand the context in which people
live their lives."



(1)   Ogata transcript (above)

(2)   "Report of the Commission of Inquiry appointed under article 26 of
the Constitution of the International Labour Organization to examine the
observance by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) "
which was published 20 August 1998 and on the ILO website:

Paper copies (392 pages) are available from ILO Distribution, - contact Mr
Dunand <prodoc@ilo,org> and Text version from David Arnott
<darnott@xxxxxxxxxxx> in 49 slices of average 30Kbytes each.

(3)  Current EXCOM members are:

Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil,
Canada, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Denmark,
Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holy See, Hungary, India, Iran
(Islamic Republic of), Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Lesotho,
Madagascar, Morocco, Namibia, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Norway,
Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Russian Federation, Somalia, South Africa,
Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda,
United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America,
Venezuela, Yugoslavia.