International Labour Organization



“If You Desire Peace, Cultivate Justice”

by Juan Somavia
Director-General of the International Labour Organization
7 May 2002

In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1969, the Nobel Committee referred to the motto enshrined in the foundations of the ILO’s original building in Geneva, “Si vis pacem, cole justitiam” – “If you desire peace, cultivate justice.” As we mark the centenary of the Nobel Peace Prize, it is worth recalling what inspired these words and why they remain relevant.

ILO History

The ILO has lived through one of the most turbulent centuries in human history. Delivering the Novel Lecture in Oslo on 11 December 1969, the Director-General of the ILO, David Morse said “there are still dangerous explosives in the hidden depths of the community … the defusing of these explosives, and the building of a truly peaceful world order based on social justice, is the task of the ILO.” Established in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the ILO’s Constitution begins with the affirmation “that universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice”. The ILO was founded to promote the fundamental rights of workers, to promote remunerative employment, to provide social protection and to improve conditions of work through social dialogue. It is the only public international organization, and the only one in the United Nations system, which is tripartite, where workers and employers enjoy equal rights with governments in representation and decision-making.

The ILO lived through the Great Depression and was the only part of the League of Nations system which survived the Second World War. The experience of war compelled the Organization to reaffirm its principles for the post-war world. This resulted in the adoption of the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944 which now forms part of the Constitution of the ILO. The key significance of the Philadelphia Declaration was that it placed the human being at the centre of development and expanded the mandate of the Organization to embrace the realm of economic and financial policy. It firmly established the notion that economic and social policies were interdependent. In the words of the Declaration, “All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity … It is the responsibility of the International Labour Organization to examine and consider all international and financial policies and measures in the light of this fundamental objective.”

In the decades following the Second World War, the ILO moved swiftly and creatively to navigate its passage through a period of ideological confrontation and decolonization. It was during this period that the ILO concretized its global commitment to build peace through orderly social change within countries, as a prerequisite for peace between countries. That goal remains perennially relevant.

By any measure, the ILO has been highly successful by providing a framework of law, institutions and public advocacy to bring social progress to many nations, particularly in the industrialized countries, where social change since 1919 has been remarkable. The ILO also helped to underpin the social and political stability of the post-war world by creating a structure of international law upon which national laws could be based, and by the development of institutions for voice and social dialogue. During the cold war, the Organization maintained its universality while insisting uncompromisingly on its basic values and the manner in which they were to be implemented. All this was no less than building the social infrastructure for peace. ILO standards provided a basis for orderly social change and its technical programmes contributed to social stability and eased the traumas of poverty and unemployment.

Responding to Globalization

With the end of the cold war and the acceleration of globalization, the Organization is once again displaying its capacity for adaptation and renewal by crafting a response to address the widespread anxiety over the effects of globalization.

Many aspects of the world at the beginning of the 21st century resemble those at the beginning of the 20th century. In terms of development, opportunity and technology, the relative gaps between the haves and have-nots still exist: 1.2 billion people live in poverty and 1 billion are unemployed or underemployed. Half the world’s population lives on less than 2 dollars a day.

While some believe that globalization is the source of wealth and welfare, others think that globalization is the source of persistent inequality and social exclusion. For too many people the world seems full of opportunities but they do not see how to connect their lives to the opportunities available. Growing insecurity and a sense that the rules of the game are unfair give rise to silent frustrations in the hearts of many individuals and their families. Questions of legitimacy and sustainability have led to increasingly acrimonious exchanges, most visible in the protests that regularly accompany major meetings of the international financial and trade institutions.

Clearly the present model of globalization is losing support. What is needed is globalization with equity. The ILO is helping to craft a model of globalization that benefits the poor and excluded, and which reduces uncertainty and increases opportunities for all.

To begin with, we should look at globalization through the eyes of people and be capable of responding to their hopes and needs. The essence of what people want remains constant, across cultures and levels of development. Everybody seeks a fair chance to prosper in life by their own endeavours. They also want a second chance when they take risks and fail. Under these circumstances, it is clear that the kind of future people want is one that can deliver opportunities for decent work in a sustainable environment.

Even in the midst of globalization, the meaning of work in people’s lives has not changed. Work is a defining feature of human existence. It is the means of sustaining life and of meeting basic needs. It is also the activity through which individuals affirm their own identity, both to themselves and to those around them. It is crucial to individual choice, to the welfare of families and to the stability of societies.

Decent Work

The goal of decent work connects with people’s hopes to obtain productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. It is about jobs and future prospects; about working conditions; about balancing work and family life, putting children through school or getting them out of child labour. It is about gender equality, equal recognition, and enabling women to make choices and take control of their lives. It is about your personal abilities to compete in the market place, keep up with new technological skills and remain healthy. It is about not being discriminated against; it is about having a voice in your workplace and your community. In the most extreme situations it is about moving from subsistence to existence. For many, it is the primary route out of poverty. For many others, it is about realizing personal aspirations in their daily existence and about solidarity with others. And everywhere, and for everybody, decent work is about securing human dignity.

How can the goal of decent work be achieved? The ILO sees it as the synthesis of four strategic objectives. Achieving universal respect for fundamental principles and rights at work; the creation of greater employment and income opportunities for women and men; extending social protection and promoting social dialogue. These objectives are closely intertwined. Respect for fundamental principles and rights is a precondition for the construction of a socially legitimate and equitable labour market; and social dialogue the means by which workers and employers achieve this. Employment creation is the essential instrument for raising living standards and widening access to incomes. Social protection is the means to provide security of income and of the working environment.

Promoting gender equality in the world of work is central to the work of the ILO. While poverty affects both men and women, there are gender-based differences in the processes that make them poor. In the world of work, women earn less, are more often unemployed, and largely restricted to low-skilled, part-time, informal, unregulated and unstable jobs. Women tend to receive inadequate social protection, or none at all. And in most circumstances, breaking out of poverty is more difficult for women than for men. A gender perspective is therefore an imperative for the ILO, not merely for reasons of equity and fairness, but also because it is part of the very substance of the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda.

The Decent Work Agenda is also an integrated vision of development. The ILO has consistently maintained that economic and social development are two aspects of the same process which sustain and reinforce each other. Decent work promotes employment, participation and social equity – the foundations of the development process. At the ILO, we seek to mainstream development into all our activities with a specific focus on the problems of the working poor, for it is among the workers in the informal economy that the problems of poverty and social exclusion are greatest.

The Decent Work Agenda does not attempt to reproduce labour conditions of advanced countries in least developed countries. Instead, it responds to shared expectations of citizens around the world, that every country set its own goals with due regard to national circumstances and realities.

Today, there is a massive decent work deficit expressed in the absence of sufficient employment opportunities, inadequate social protection, the denial of rights at work and failures in social dialogue. The objective of the ILO is to reduce this deficit, and we do it in a number of ways.

Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work marked a reaffirmation by member States to “respect, to promote and to realize in good faith” the right to freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, and to the elimination of all form of forced or compulsory labour, the effective abolition of child labour and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. These rights are valid in all countries – at whatever stage of development – whether the sweatshops and “inner cities” of the North, or the shanty towns and export processing zones of the South. They are universal enabling rights. The most fundamental of these rights is the right to voice – to organize and be heard, to be able to defend your interests and to collective bargaining. It is the foundation on which other rights can be fully exercised.

The Declaration places an obligation on all member countries of the ILO to respect the fundamental principles involved, whether or not they have ratified the relevant ILO Conventions. The Declaration stresses that labour standards should not be used for protectionist trade purposes. It is promotional in nature and provides information about economic and social development needs relating to these rights and principles, thereby assisting in the design of technical cooperation programmes.

Protecting children is one of the essential elements in pursuit of social justice and universal peace. Child labour works against investment in human capability, against the provision of decent and dignified work and against the reduction of poverty. In its worst forms, it robs children of their health, their education and even their lives. The ILO estimates that 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are at work. In June 1999 a new Convention concerning the worst forms of child labour was adopted which has enjoyed the most rapid rate of ratification in ILO history. A growing number of countries are seeking assistance from the ILO’s International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). IPEC goes beyond trying to stop children from working. It tries to promote development by providing adequate educational alternatives to children, and access to income and security for the parents.

How does the ILO promote workers’ rights? To begin with, a major responsibility of the ILO is to legislate international labour standards. The tripartite support of workers, employers and governments gives them an unparalleled social legitimacy. When ratified by national Parliaments, they become national law. The ILO has an independent supervisory system that monitors the implementation of these standards in a transparent and systematic way. National law gives ILO Conventions local enforcement power. At the national level, there may be labour courts, mediation systems or other institutions to support putting standards into practice. Strong labour inspection systems have not only a policing, but also an educational role, which technical cooperation can help to strengthen.

Decent Employment and Income Opportunity

In order for work to be decent, there must first be work. The ILO is playing its part as the lead agency in the field of employment and enterprise creation at the national level, as well as in joint activities with international financial institutions and other UN agencies.

The World Employment Report is the ILO’s flagship publication in the employment field. Key Indicators of the Labour Market, another wide-ranging reference tool, provides the reader with concise explanations and analysis of data on the world’s labour markets. Country employment reviews help member States give substance to their commitment to full, productive and freely chosen employment through an appropriate choice of economic and social policies. While most countries now prioritize skills development, investment in human resource development by both private and public sectors remains inadequate. The ILO deals with these issues through a programme on knowledge, skills and employability.

Sustained growth of enterprises is essential to employment creation and economic growth in open economies. The ILO has developed a wide range of enterprise-related programmes, with particular emphasis on entrepreneurship development, management training and small enterprise promotion. In terms of generating jobs, the ILO’s main emphasis is on the promotion of small enterprises and the upgrading of micro-enterprises in the informal sector which generate most new jobs worldwide.

Social Protection for All

Access to an adequate level of social protection is recognized in the ILO’s Declaration of Philadelphia and a number of international labour standards as a basic right of all individuals. Yet in many countries reality falls short of the ideals of the Declaration. About 80% of the world’s population is excluded from any type of formal social security protection. The ILO recognizes that while excessive security can induce passivity, adequate economic and social security is essential for productive work and human dignity.

Work-related accidents and diseases are a serious problem in both developed and developing countries. The ILO estimates that workers suffer 250 million accidents a year. ILO action in the field of occupational safety and health pursues a two-pronged approach. It creates alliances and partnerships with governments, social partners, NGO’s and human rights groups in advocacy campaigns. The ILO also supports action at the national level through direct technical assistance, with particular focus on hazardous occupations.

Adequate working conditions are central to the achievement of long-term sustainable growth, good living standards and social harmony. Major ILO activities cover labour inspection, fighting substance abuse at work, maternity protection, violence at work, changes in working time arrangements and organization of work. Some 90 million people now work and live outside their country and nationality, and their numbers are growing rapidly in some regions on account of worsening economic imbalances. The ILO works to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of migrants for employment. Of particular concern are women migrants who are often in low-skilled occupations and vulnerable to exploitation.

Strengthening Tripartism and Social Dialogue

Achieving the objectives of decent work for all requires strong social partners and effective social dialogue and tripartism. Tripartism is the distinguishing characteristic of the ILO among other international organizations. Fair terms of employment, decent working conditions, economic and social development can only be achieved with a broad based effort and the consent of workers, employers and governments. The ILO helps them to establish sound labour relations, adapt labour laws to meet changing economic and social needs and improve labour administration. The ILO assists workers’ and employers’ organizations to reach out to new constituencies, especially women and youth, and to improve the quality of services they offer to their members.

A Social Pillar for the Global Economy

The ILO is working with others in the international community, national governments, and workers and employers groups, to create a system of common values and policies so that more countries and individuals are able to benefit from opportunities in the global economy.

This requires greater policy integration at the level of different institutions and the development community, and placing employment at the core of development and poverty eradication policies. For example, the ILO is working with the Bretton Woods institutions to build the goals of employment and decent work into country-level poverty reduction strategies. We are a part of the United Nations Policy Network on Youth Employment, a partnership between the United Nations, the World Bank and the ILO to determine what works in combating youth unemployment. And we work with UNCTAD on making employment part of the strategy for the least developed countries.

The global economy can deliver decent jobs and enhance security as a foundation of sustainable development. Many of the factors which need to be tackled lie in the global economy, such as trade, capital flows and cross-border production systems. Promoting decent work also means changing the way the global economy works, so that its benefits reach more and more people.

Cultivating justice and achieving peace in a globalizing world will need a greater sense of common purpose to shared goals at the international and national levels. It requires integrated thinking to address the integrated problems of society and the economy. It means guiding policy-making with a moral compass, ensuring that decisions are based on universally shared principles of equity and equality, without losing sight of the need for sustained economic growth. It is about linking justice and economic progress in practical ways.

While many international instruments and institutions already exist, no single institution can generate social progress in the global economy on its own. The ILO’s Decent Work Agenda is a realistic means to combine social progress and economic efficiency. It is a blueprint without borders, leading us in the direction of greater equity, security and stability. The ILO intends to make it an important contribution in the worldwide movement to globalize social justice and secure peace.

To cite this section
MLA style: “If You Desire Peace, Cultivate Justice”. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Thu. 25 Jul 2024. <>

Back to top Back To Top Takes users back to the top of the page

Nobel Prizes and laureates

Eleven laureates were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2023, for achievements that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. Their work and discoveries range from effective mRNA vaccines and attosecond physics to fighting against the oppression of women.

See them all presented here.

Explore prizes and laureates

Look for popular awards and laureates in different fields, and discover the history of the Nobel Prize.