United Nations Adopts the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Through the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, the United Nations encouraged countries affiliated with the International Labor Organization to outlaw the use of forced labor as punishment for political dissent.

Summary of Event

Since the eighteenth century, human rights advocates have denounced human labor bondage and called for its abolition. Although slavery has been the most conspicuous form of bondage through the years, another type of bondage known as forced labor was widely practiced and widely condemned in the twentieth century. Slaves are considered chattel, usually of individuals. Forced labor has been used as a punishment for the expression of political opinions that are not favored by existing authorities and for economic exploitation that benefits the state. Compulsory employment of indigenous peoples in colonial mines, so-called “correctional labor” for enemies of the people in revolutionary Russia, labor camps associated with Joseph Stalin’s five-year plans in the 1930’s, and the compulsory employment of conquered peoples of Europe to serve the Nazi war machine are examples of this type of bondage. Shortly after World War II, concerted efforts were made to outlaw forced labor throughout the world. United Nations;forced labor Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Forced labor Abolition of Forced Labor Convention (1957) [kw]United Nations Adopts the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention (June 25, 1957) [kw]Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, United Nations Adopts the (June 25, 1957) [kw]Forced Labor Convention, United Nations Adopts the Abolition of (June 25, 1957) [kw]Convention, United Nations Adopts the Abolition of Forced Labor (June 25, 1957) United Nations;forced labor Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Forced labor Abolition of Forced Labor Convention (1957) [g]Europe;June 25, 1957: United Nations Adopts the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention[05480] [g]Switzerland;June 25, 1957: United Nations Adopts the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention[05480] [c]United Nations;June 25, 1957: United Nations Adopts the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention[05480] [c]Human rights;June 25, 1957: United Nations Adopts the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention[05480] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 25, 1957: United Nations Adopts the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention[05480] Morse, David A. Lie, Trygve Hammarskjöld, Dag Berg, Paal Mudaliar, Ramaswami Palavicini, Felix Fulgencio García Sayán, Enrique Rugger, Paul Charlone, César Goonetilleke, T. P. B.

In November, 1947, the American Federation of Labor American Federation of Labor (AFL) proposed that the United Nations Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. (ECOSOC) request that the International Labor Organization International Labor Organization (ILO) conduct a thorough survey of forced labor in U.N. member states and recommend a program to end it as part of the effort to foster human rights and to improve employment conditions. The AFL request pointed to the progress made in suppressing slavery and the slave trade and to the actions of the Nuremberg Tribunal in holding prominent Nazis accountable for abuse inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Europeans during the war.

Although progress had been made, the AFL also noted that there were a number of similar cases which were cause for concern. Emphasis was placed on the detention of millions of prisoners of war as forced laborers. In addition, some members of the United Nations operated corrective labor camps that amounted to a form of state slavery where people were punished, often without due process, for expressing political opinions. The AFL resolution was passed.

On February 14, 1949, the ECOSOC took up the AFL resolution amid considerable controversy. The United States charged that the Soviet Union Human rights;Soviet Union was the world’s chief practitioner of forced labor, benefiting from the work of an estimated eight to fourteen million prisoners. The United States introduced a draft resolution calling on the ILO to look into the matter and report its findings to the ECOSOC.

Predictably, the Soviet representative, Semyon K. Tsarapkin Tsarapkin, Semyon K. , took issue with these assertions and with the AFL resolution. He accused both the AFL and the United States of slandering the Soviet Union, adopting the tactics of Nazi master propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who used the frequently repeated “big lie” to distract his audience from the truth. Tsarapkin argued that forced labor was the basis of the capitalist economy and pointed to the discriminatory nature of the AFL report, which made no mention of U.S. penal labor; forced labor imposed on displaced persons, especially in Great Britain’s occupation zone in Germany; or practices in Latin America, other capitalist countries, or colonies.

After rejecting a Soviet-sponsored draft resolution to establish an international commission to study worldwide working conditions, the ECOSOC invited the ILO to investigate the problem of forced labor and to determine its extent, and instructed the secretary-general of the United Nations to cooperate closely with the ILO. In August, 1949, the United States presented a resolution to set up a commission of inquiry, but the majority of the ECOSOC decided that pursuing the investigation would be useless unless all governments, especially the major powers, were willing to cooperate. The Soviet Union and its allies made it very clear that they would not cooperate with this investigation, which they assumed was politically motivated and aimed primarily against them. After lengthy debate, the ECOSOC asked the secretary-general to ask member governments to agree to cooperate in an inquiry. By the end of 1949, thirty governments had issued statements pledging cooperation.

In 1950, the question of investigating forced labor was postponed once more. The Soviet Union was boycotting U.N. activities in protest of the denial of China’s U.N. seat to the Chinese Communists after their ouster of the Chinese Nationalists from the mainland. The ECOSOC decided not to pursue the forced labor issue in the absence of the Soviet delegation. The ILO did begin discussions on establishing a commission of inquiry into the nature and extent of forced labor. A year later, on June 27, 1951, U.N. secretary-general Trygve Lie and ILO director-general David A. Morse jointly announced the formation of an ad hoc committee on forced labor.

In October, 1951, the committee members began their work in Geneva. They announced their plans to formulate and distribute to all governments (not only United Nations and ILO members) a questionnaire asking about the use of punitive, educational, or corrective labor as well as other cases of compulsory work in each country. An April 1, 1952, deadline was set for the questionnaire’s return. The committee announced its hopes to complete its work by the end of 1952 or early 1953.

On May 27, 1953, the committee presented its report to the ILO and the ECOSOC. Its investigation led it to the conclusion that systems of forced labor did exist in twenty-four countries or territories. Forced labor was used as a form of political coercion to “correct” political opinions and to promote the state’s economic prosperity. This report was not discussed at the ECOSOC’s summer, 1953, session. The United States called for its inclusion on the agenda for the fall session, arguing that the issue harmonized with the United Nations’ determination to promote social and economic progress, to achieve international cooperation in solving problems, and to further human rights.

The committee’s report discussed not only isolated examples but also systemic government action which produced wholesale suppression of human rights. The Soviet Union was identified as the chief culprit, using forced labor as political coercion and to promote its national economy. Georgi F. Saksin Saksin, Georgi F. , the Soviet ECOSOC delegate, denounced the committee’s work as a refusal to consider real forced labor, claiming members were content to slander the Soviet Union through errors, mistranslations, omissions, and other grave mistakes. After further heated exchanges, the ECOSOC delegates voted in favor of the United States’ proposal to have the committee’s report presented to the Third (Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural) Committee Third Committee, U.N. .

The next step in the slow process came a year later, when the Third Committee approved a resolution condemning forced labor and calling for continued efforts to end it. The resolution also called on the U.N. General Assembly to endorse an ECOSOC condemnation of systems of forced labor used as political coercion or punishment for holding or expressing political views. This resolution passed on December 14, 1954. Consideration of the forced labor issue seemed substantially intertwined with Cold War politics, as the working definition of forced labor was given as Soviet practice.

Prompted by the Third Committee’s resolution, the ECOSOC and the General Assembly condemned systems of forced labor and urged governments to reexamine laws and administrative practices to find the means to end this threat to basic human rights. U.N. secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld and the ILO director-general were asked to prepare a further report, to include any new information that had come to light since the 1953 report. The new report was to be completed by December, 1955, so that the director-general could present it to the ILO governing body and to the delegates to the 1956 and 1957 ILO Conference. In the meantime, the ECOSOC issued a condemnation of all forms of forced labor on the grounds that it contradicted the principles of the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The condemnation urged action to stop forced labor wherever it existed.

In June, 1956, delegates at the Thirty-ninth General Conference of the ILO Thirty-ninth General Conference of the International Labor Organization (1956)[Thirtyninth General Conference of the International Labor Organization] heard the ad hoc committee’s report. Delegates representing member governments, employers’organizations, and workers’ organizations decided that there was sufficient cause to revise the 1930 Convention on Forced Labor Convention on Forced Labor (1930) . Subsequently, the ILO voted unanimously to draft a new convention to outlaw forced labor, concentration camps, and deportation of national minorities for political or other reasons. The new convention was scheduled for inclusion on the 1957 conference agenda. On another, closely related front, on September 4, 1956, the United Nations adopted a supplement to the 1926 antislavery convention to abolish serfdom, debt bondage, bride price, inheritance of widows, and abuses linked to the adoption of children.

Finally, on June 25, 1957, the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention was ready for a vote at the Fortieth General Conference in Geneva. The ILO adopted three new international conventions: forced labor, weekly rest in commerce and offices, and protection of indigenous populations. The forced labor convention was approved 240-0, with the Soviet Union, which had joined the ILO in 1954, abstaining. The terms of the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention called on ratifying states to suppress and to eschew future use of forced labor for political reasons, economic development, labor discipline, punishment for participation in strikes or other labor disputes, or as a means of discrimination. Since the ILO pursued this convention on behalf of the United Nations, the June 25, 1957, vote committed the United Nations to work to end forced labor. The convention took effect on January 17, 1959.


The United Nations’ moral power had been marshaled once more against those who would abuse their own populations. World “public opinion” has contributed to the increase in pressure on governments and agencies to end various forms of abuse. The United Nations, through its General Assembly and affiliated organizations, has done admirable work in assembling people from many lands and cultures ready to pass judgment on which actions are abusive. Theoretically, the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention was a landmark in human rights, but in practical terms the impact of the convention has been less clear.

In the late 1950’s, the Soviet Union began to shut down its infamous “gulag” system. That action seems to have been more domestically motivated than the result of world opinion. In 1956, Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;de-Stalinization delivered the famous “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress. By denouncing some of the crimes of the Stalinist era, Khrushchev took a giant step toward a different Soviet society. Further steps were taken as prisoners were released and rehabilitated and as camps were closed. The Soviet Union has shown a capacity to brush off its critics’ condemnations, but during the Khrushchev era there was a short period when some Soviet policies harmonized with the worldwide drive for human rights.

Given the energetic American promotion of the forced labor issue in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, one might conclude that the United States would be one of the first states to ratify the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention. For a variety of reasons, however, including domestic constitutional issues, the United States has often opposed international human rights agreements.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;human rights tested the decade-old policy against ratification of human rights Human rights;United States conventions when he sent three conventions to the Senate for consideration. The three were the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (opened for signature on September 7, 1956); the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention (signed June 25, 1957); and the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (opened for signature on December 20, 1952). Four years elapsed before the Senate held the first hearing on any of the three conventions; on the recommendation of the American Bar Association, it ratified only the slavery convention.

Although more than one hundred states had ratified the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention by the early 1970’s, the convention has not been the final word on forced labor or produced its complete abolition. One of the by-products of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a charter outlining states’ obligations regarding human rights. In 1966, the U.N. General Assembly approved the final text for the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, U.N. (1966) which asserted, among other rights, the right to life, freedom from torture and cruel punishment, and freedom from slavery and forced or compulsory labor. International agreements remain valid, however, only so long as the parties to them abide by them, and several nations have forced their citizens to labor in violation of the covenant, making clear the status of that document as an important advance but not a final solution. United Nations;forced labor Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Forced labor Abolition of Forced Labor Convention (1957)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barros, James, ed. The United Nations: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Free Press, 1972. This collection of seven essays analyzes the various components of the United Nations, emphasizing the international body’s capacity for survival and its superiority to the League of Nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Commission to Study the Organization of Peace. The United Nations and Human Rights. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1968. A sympathetic report on the theory and practice of the pursuit of human rights through U.N. auspices from 1945 to the mid-1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fernbach, Alfred. Soviet Coexistence Strategy: A Case Study of Experience in the International Labor Organization. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1960. Very useful in sorting out the various Soviet stances through the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobson, Harold K. “The USSR and the ILO.” International Organization 14 (September, 1960): 402-428. Compares nicely with Fernbach, although it does not offer similar detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenks, C. W. Social Justice in the Law of Nations: The ILO Impact After Fifty Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. An informative and engaging account of ILO efforts to shape labor and human rights policies from the end of World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osmańczyk, Edmund Jan. The Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Relations. Edited by Anthony Mango. 3d ed. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2002. Compilation of information on the United Nations, including entries on thousands of agreements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, A. H. Human Rights in the World. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Astonishing in its scope, this volume surveys and appraises the human rights efforts of the United Nations and various regional organizations. Very good for providing fundamental bases for those beginning to explore human rights questions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubinstein, Alvin Z. The Soviets in International Organizations: Changing Policy Toward Developing Countries, 1953-1963. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964. A useful supplement to a study of Soviet foreign policy, very detailed but short on historical perspective on motivation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sohn, Louis B., and Thomas Buergenthal. International Protection of Human Rights. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. Massive tome developed as a textbook but very useful as a source for detailed discussion of specific human rights cases.

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Categories: History