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Can a United Nations treaty really help the #Metoo movement?

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Can a United Nations treaty really help the #Metoo movement?
MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke at The United State of Women Summit 2018 on May 5th. Photo: AFP
08:57 CEST+02:00
Two years before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein spurred a global reckoning about sexual misconduct, the United Nations' oldest agency was exploring new ways to protect workers from harassment and assault.

Now, with the #Metoo movement continuing to reverberate across borders and industries, a nascent convention being drafted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) has taken on new urgency. 

Read also: Disgraced Swiss politician resigns after sexual harassment claims

"We decided to start this process in 2015," ILO director-general Guy Ryder told AFP in Geneva this week. 

"So we would have been doing this regardless of what had been happening in specific cases, the #Metoo campaign and the rest of it, but I think it's obvious that the focus of public opinion, the public interest, the awareness that something is badly wrong in many workplaces I think adds force to this process," he said. 

Negotiations on a new convention to set benchmarks regarding workplace harassment and abuse will take centre-stage at the ILO's upcoming annual assembly, which runs from May 28th to June 8th. 

Read also: 14 fascinating facts about the history of women's rights in Switzerland

Sceptics may scoff at the impact of yet another UN text, as they are so often flagrantly ignored by governments, especially when they pertain to human rights or the laws of war.  

But the ILO, founded in 1919, is unique among UN agencies. 

While it includes 187 member-states, the organisation also groups powerful labour unions as well as representatives of leading employers, distinguishing ILO treaties from other UN pacts that are only agreed by governments.  

Ryder stressed that the ILO was not simply trying to boost awareness. 

"Awareness raising is great but it's not enough. It's a much broader task we have set for ourselves," he said. 

The first goal concerns definitions. 

In a world where workplace norms vary among cultures and where terms like bullying and harassment may mean different things in different societies, the ILO will strive for "standardisation of terminology," said Ryder, a British national and former labour union leader. 

The convention will then aim to list a set of workplace rights and establish enforcement and protection mechanisms, the ILO chief said. 

Every country has 'a problem'

Ryder said that ILO surveys showed broad support for the treaty, in yet another reflection of the prevalence of workplace abuses. 

The initial revelations last year centred on allegations of sexual misconduct and violence by American men in the entertainment industry -- notably film producer Weinstein and actor-director Kevin Spacey -- but the #Metoo conversation is now truly global.

"I can think of no country, no member-state which can say we do not have a problem," Ryder said.

He highlighted South Africa, where 77 percent of women have reported suffering some form of sexual harassment while working and the United States, where a quarter of all workers say they have faced abusive conduct at their job, according to ILO surveys.

Ryder also noted that the ILO's legacy of protecting women at work dates back to one of its first conventions passed in 1919, even if the approach has changed dramatically over the last century.

That convention made it illegal for women to work at night, a measure which at the time was considered necessary to insulate women from predatory male conduct that increased after dark.

"It was a protective instinct," he said. "Now we've got rid of that approach. We've gone from this protective instinct to the equality objective."

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