Cries unheard: the barriers to ending child labour

Speech to semi-plenary session of Global Conference on Child Labour, The Hague, May 2010 

I will try to be brief as I am very aware that three quarters of the way through a conference on child labour with this sort of audience there is little that I can say that you do not already know.

I was very struck by the comment from the speaker Ms Nyunguna in the last session who stated quite bluntly the harsh truth that “We do not own this problem” of child labour. This I think is core to the world’s failure to eliminate child labour. However I would put Ms Nyunguna’s important insight slightly differently. It is that we would sooner own just about every other problem rather than that of child labour.

This is because as individuals and organisations we have to relate to a multiplicity of stakeholders and we will tend to privilege those most immediate to us, those who are the loudest and those who have the most power to advance or impede our own most favoured interests. Tragically for the child labourers of the world they rarely are in a position to make their voices heard to the powerful, hence their needs are most easily ignored amongst the clamour of other interests. And, when decision-makers privilege the priorities of powerful stakeholders over those of children in labour they will find no lack of stories to tell themselves that what they are doing is not only necessary but morally good.

The most common excuses for failing to act on such fundamental issues of human rights are economic. Paul Whitehouse, Chair of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority in the UK notes how the introduction of ships’ loading lines was opposed in the 19th Century by the British Government department responsible for trade because while it recognised that it would unquestionably save the lives of sailors it would also impinge upon the profits of ship owners. I do not deny for a moment that economic concerns are vital issues in the modern world. But if we allow them to become fundamental they will define us, in whole or in part, as a singularly unattractive sort of people, the sort who are prepared to tolerate the sufferings of others in the name of our selfish interests.

Some of the finest moments in human history have occurred when decision makers have unshackled their minds from the primacy of economic concerns. Modern historians recognise, for example, that Britain’s abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade cost the nation millions of pounds, a loss the nation was prepared to bear such was the society’s revulsion at the human cost of the country’s economic success. In the modern world child labourers are generally disorganised and distant from the powerful, obscured from view by the complexity of the global market and hence easily forgotten. Even domestic labourers in our own midst in Europe and America are sufficiently out of sight to have their rights generally ignored.

The last British Government, progressive on many issues, declared that it saw no need for a new international convention on domestic labour, despite cases such as Patience versus the UK demonstrating how easily, even for an adult, domestic labour can degenerate into slavery. The vulnerability of children is even more pronounced. And yet such risks are discounted in the face of the principle of minimising regulation.

In the coming months many other stakeholders may find reasons that they find morally convincing to oppose an international convention on domestic labour, or other measures to combat other forms of child labour, particularly in agriculture. But if we as a human society, as a community of nations and employers and civil society, allow such arguments to triumph in relation to child domestic labour and all the other forms of child labour it will be a terrible indictment of all of us.

A New Europe Forum? Plotting a path to peace in a time of war

Also published in Left Foot Forward 

It is plain now that we are in the midst of a civil war in Europe. It has been going on for some time with Europeans butchering fellow Europeans in London, Paris, Brussels and most recently Nice.


Aftermath of the 14 July 2016 Nice attack

It is difficult for those of us who lack the murderous impulse of the deluded and inadequate perpetrators of such recent horrors to obtain any empathetic understanding of them. But perhaps one obvious but important truth is that those who aspire to mutilate their fellow human beings are alienated from the communities that they live among, and from the values of the societies that they seek to terrorise.

If this is indeed the case then the necessary security measures which the governments of Europe are scrambling to put in place will be inadequate in addressing the underlying causes of this alienation. Furthermore if clumsily managed, security measures can exacerbate the situation, accentuating the sense of alienation of some who come to the attention of the security services and driving them into the ranks of the fratricidists who live amongst us.


Not winning hearts and minds: French police force a burkini clad woman to strip

So what is needed, in addition to more police and intelligence operations to thwart aspiring killers, is a political response to the situation. It is difficult for an outsider to say specifically what measures would be necessary to counter the alienation of the communities from which the killers spring. But Europe could take a lesson from Irish history here.

In the dark days of the 1980s when the violence in the North of Ireland was taking on a permanent complexion in the absence of any credible political initiatives, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, John Hume, suggested the establishment of the New Ireland Forum as a means by which Irish leaders committed to non-violence could begin to plot a new political path towards a peaceful future. From these modest beginnings a new political process emerged which led, ultimately, to the Good Friday Agreement, and the first durable peace Ireland has seen in hundreds of years – at least until it has come under threat from the delusional aspirations of English nationalists to hack apart the European basis of this peace.

Following this lead the European Parliament should establish an inquiry into the causes of European jihadism and to propose political, economic and social responses to the alienation of the European communities from which this murderous jihadism springs. The inquiry should seek to take evidence not only from fellow politicians and academics, religious and community leaders, but also from ordinary people from all parts of Europe.

The evidence, as well as the analysis and conclusions from this inquiry should be published and European governments should be required to report on how they have responded to the recommendations.

Some measures to blunt the threat may be straightforward: people tend to be less likely to seek to destroy their society if they see plainly that the society is providing them with decent jobs and housing. Some measures may relate to addressing some of the chaos which certain European nations have helped create in the Middle East, such as establishing peace in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Israel: Geography dictates that Europe simply cannot be at peace when the Middle East is in conflagration. Other initiatives may be more novel and unexpected.

The threat of violence that is posed is not yet an existential one for Europe. But it is a challenge to European values of pluralism, democracy, human rights and rule of law. If we cannot plot a political response to this violence that springs from and honours these values, then the arguments of the ideologues of bloodshed will be made a little stronger.

Ourselves Alone: How the Leave Campaigns repudiated rule of international law

Also published in Left Foot Forward

The late Tom Bingham, perhaps the most distinguished English jurist of his generation, noted that legal scholars trace the concept of rule of law back to Aristotle. However the concept is apparent, at least in nascent form, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King written a century earlier. In this the king realises as his own investigation finds himself responsible for the plague on Thebes that he must be subject to his own earlier ruling on how the culprit should be held accountable.


Tom Bingham

Bingham built on prior formulations of rule of law to argue that the idea had eight principles that were fundamental to it. These included that the law must afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights, and that the state must comply with its obligations in international law as in national law.

For hard Right ideologues, such as Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, such ideals of rule of law sit at odds with their own conception of the supremacy of Parliament as a fundamental of the unwritten British Constitution.

But generations of parliamentarians have never seen any conflict between rule of law and rule of parliament. So they have, over the past 40 years, set constraints on the unfettered power of parliament, notably in the form of the Human Rights Act, which is administered by the UK’s Supreme Court with appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, and the treaties that the UK freely entered into to obtain its membership of the European Union, which are overseen by the European Court of Justice.

So, when Gove, Johnson and Farage talked about taking back control during their poisonous and bloodstained campaign to take the UK out of the EU, what they were talking about was removing the constraints that derive from the treaty obligations which have provided the manifold benefits that arise from EU membership. Doubtless they were also thinking about national law, specifically the protections from government excesses afforded to citizens by the Human Rights Act.

It is axiomatic that a partnership like the European Union, indeed any international treaty with other nations, must introduce mutual responsibilities and ideally should have some independent body to oversee that the parties to the treaty comply. Otherwise the already fragile concepts of international rule of law become meaningless.

British experience of international rule of law during its colonial period was rather different to such contemporary expectations. It had little consideration of mutual benefits but rather had an altogether more lopsided aspect, with no recourse to independent arbitration or appeals to human rights for the colonial subjects whose exploitation enriched the UK to such an extraordinary extent.

This colonial perspective contributed greatly to the ludicrous myth of Britain standing alone during the Second World War. This myth insultingly overlooks the vital contributions made by Africans, Australians, Canadians, Indians, and Kiwis to the struggles against Nazism and Japanese militarism. This myth also gravely overlooks the horrendous cost that this entailed, most infamously in the Bengal famine of 1943.

But a theme running through the depressing debates relating to the UK’s EU membership in the run up to the referendum of 23 June 2016 was that the UK can still “stand alone”. This was underpinned by that weird continuing sense of colonial entitlement: that the UK should be allowed to cherry-pick what its relationship with the EU should be without any appreciation that UK membership should bring responsibilities not just privileges.

This attitude was copper-fastened by a careful cultivation of xenophobia by the Leave campaigns, and by a startling disregard for mere facts, from the true cost of EU membership to the actual provisions of EU treaties and the rights and obligations of member states under those treaties.

This wilful ignorance and misinformation to the UK electorate continues past the result of the referendum. On the morning of 27 June Boris Johnson declared, “The only change – and it will not come in any great rush – is that the UK will extricate itself from the EU’s extraordinary and opaque system of legislation: the vast and growing corpus of law enacted by a European Court of Justice from which there can be no appeal”.

Perhaps Johnson rarely lets facts get in the way of an opportunity to stoke the prejudices of his listeners. Perhaps he is merely supremely uninterested in facts. The European Court of Justice enacts nothing. It administers the body of law agreed by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, of which, to date, the UK has been an equal party.

It is too early to see what will be all the consequences of the UK’s repudiation of the EU. Perhaps this will sate the appetite of the ideologues of the Right for unfettered power if what comes to pass is a recession-hit Little England as Scotland prepares to steer its own course as a full and independent member of the EU.


A blind Oedipus led by his daughter Antigone

But it is unlikely. And the Human Rights Act remains for a while longer, another affront to the Tea Party-ist fantasies of a resurgent and exclusivist English nationalism. Gove or Johnson may like to eruditely comment, after Milton, that they prefer to rule in hell than serve in heaven as they seek to translate their peculiar Cromwellian version of Ourselves Alone into a new English polity.

Oedipus could not bear to look upon the devastation that he had wrought on his family and city so he tore out his own eyes. Today Gove, Farage, and Johnson look upon the wasteland that they have created of young people’s hopes for modest opportunities to study, work and fall in love amongst their fellow European neighbours, and they judge that it is good.