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Juan Somavia

Director-General of the International Labour Organization, 1999-2012

Document | 28 September 2012

Juan Somavia (Chile) was Director-General of the ILO from March 1999 to September 2012. He has had a long and distinguished career in civil, political and international affairs. His wide experience in all areas of public life – as Ambassador, CEO, policy-maker, and his involvement in social development, business, civil and academic organizations have all helped shape his vision of the need to secure decent work for women and men through productive investments in the real economy. He believes that in many ways the quality of a society is defined by the quality of work available. He has been particularly active in addressing the social dimension of the present financial and economic crisis.

Throughout his career, he has written and lectured widely on trade, security, social, economic, labour, and human rights issues and holds numerous citations and awards for his work in the areas of peace, human rights and social development.

He was elected to serve as the ninth Director-General of the ILO by the Governing Body on 23 March 1998. His five-year term of office began on 4 March 1999, when he became the first representative from the Southern hemisphere to head the Organization. In March 2003, Mr Somavia was re-elected for a second five-year term, and for a third term on 18 November 2008. Mr Somavia relinquished his post as Director-General of ILO in September 2012.

Since taking office, Mr Somavia has taken up the challenge that the rapidly changing economy presents to the ILO, a tripartite organization of governments, employers and workers. In 1999, he submitted his Decent Work Agenda to the International Labour Conference, which was subsequently endorsed by the Governing Body and the Conference. The Organization adopted "Decent Work" as the contemporary expression of its historical mandate.

At his initiative, the ILO created in 2002 the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, with a pluralistic composition of Heads of State, employers' and workers' representatives, policy-makers and academics and social actors from all walks of life. It was the first official body to take a systematic look at the social impact of globalization. Its operative recommendations on ways to achieve a fair globalization that creates opportunities for all have received wide support from the United Nations to the G20.

In June 2008, the International Labour Conference adopted the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization. It recasts the ILO's mission to meet the challenges of globalization in the twenty-first century through the Decent Work Agenda.

With strong support from Heads of State and Government and ministers of labour, employer and worker representatives and other leaders during the ILO Global Jobs Summit in 2009, the ILO adopted a Global Jobs Pact designed to guide national and international policies aimed at stimulating economic recovery, generating jobs and providing protection to working people and their families. The Jobs Pact was thereafter welcomed by Leaders of the G20 at the Pittsburgh Summit, where ILO Director-General Juan Somavia was invited to present a report on policies and prospects for jobs and social protection. Under his leadership, the ILO has been invited to participate in the subsequent G20 Summits. From 2009 to 2012, Mr Somavia has placed the ILO at the heart of the global policy debate on crisis responses. In summarizing his task at the ILO, he said “it is about vision, leadership, innovation for consensus-building and action on ILO values in times of change and crisis.”

Up to September 2012, for 13 years Mr Somavia has been a member of the Interim Committee, later the International Monetary and Financial Committee of the IMF dealing with global monetary and financial issues. The ILO and the IMF jointly organized an unprecedented meeting in November 2010 on the employment implication of the financial and economic crisis, endorsing the ILO’s Global Job Pact. Throughout his tenure, he has been an active participant in the activities of the World Economic Forum in Geneva and the annual gathering in Davos. He was also involved in the initial meetings of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and Mumbai.

Prior to his election as Director-General of the ILO, Mr Somavia was Ambassador of Chile to the United Nations in New York from 1990 to 1999, representing the newly elected democratic government of Chile.

He held some key positions at the United Nations.

1993-95: Chairman of the Preparatory Committee of the World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen in 1995;

1993-94, 1998-99: President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council;

1996-97: Representative of Chile on the United Nations Security Council, including President of the Security Council in April 1996 and October 1997;

1991-92: Chairman of the Social Committee of the United Nations Economic and Social Council;

1990-91: Chairman of the United Nations Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs.

Juan Somavia began his career as an academic. From 1967 to 1968, he was lecturer on economic and social issues for GATT's trade policy courses in Geneva. In 1971, he was appointed Professor of International Economic and Social Affairs in the Department of Political Sciences at the Catholic University of Chile, where he highlighted the ILO and its tripartite structure as a case study in international cooperation and conflict resolution. Between 1976 and 1990, he was Founder, Executive Director and President of the Latin American Institute of Transnational Studies (ILET), during which time he undertook a number of studies on trade union and social movements in Mexico City and Santiago. From 1996 to 1999, Mr Somavia was Chairman of the Board of the United Nations Research Insitute for Social Development (UNRISD).

Juan Somavia has always shown a strong interest in development cooperation and economic and social affairs. During the late 1960s, while working in GATT, he promoted the participation of developing countries in the Kennedy Round. From 1970 to 1973, Mr Somavia served as Member and Chairman of the Board of the Andean Development Corporation in Caracas and worked intensively in favour of regional integration. He was also a Member of the Executive Committee of the International Foundation for Development Alternatives in Nyon, Switzerland from 1977 to 1995 and has been on the Advisory Committee of Development Dialogue (published by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Sweden) for more than 25 years. During his term at the UN, Ambassador Somavia proposed and chaired the organization of the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in March 1995. It was attended by more than 120 Heads of State and Government. It was a first attempt by the international community to bring the “people’s agenda” (employment, poverty and social integration) into global decision-making and opened the way to the approval of the Millennium Development Goals some years later. Juan Somavia has developed strong expertise on security issues ranging from border disputes in South America, to the human security concept which he helped develop to global security issues on the agenda of the UN Security Council.

Juan Somavia also held important government responsibilities in Chile. Among them:

1968-70: Ambassador and Senior Advisor to the Foreign Minister of Chile on Economic and Social Affairs, among them responsible for multilateral issues;

1970-73: Executive Secretary of the Latin American Free Trade Association in Chile; Ambassador of Chile to the Andean Group; Member and Chairman of the Governing Body of the Andean Group.

Juan Somavia's multifaceted career has been driven by a strong concern for social justice, peace, human rights and democracy. After 10 years in exile (1974 to 1983), he returned home and participated actively in the restoration of democracy in Chile. He was President of the International Commission of the Democratic Coalition in Chile (1983-1990) and also Founder and Secretary-General of the South American Peace Commission (1986-90). His pursuit of these ideals has earned him several citations and awards, among them the Leonides Proaño Peace Prize from the Latin American Human Rights Association, International Achievement Award from the InterPress Service, the International Golden Dove of Peace Award and the Silver Rose Award from SOLIDAR for his vision of decent work and for defending the rights and freedoms of workers. Most recently he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the MDG Awards Committee in New York, for his work towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and promoting social development.

Juan Somavia has been involved in business, financial and civil society organizations for many years. As Executive Secretary of the Chilean-Argentinian Chamber of Commerce he strengthened ties between the business communities in both countries. From 1976 to 1982, Juan Somavia was Coordinator of the Third World Forum, a network of African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean social actors. He was also a member of the Board and Vice President for Latin America of the Third World News Agency, Interpress Service (1976-82) based in Rome. Together with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize winner, Mr Somavia represented Latin America as a Member of the MacBride Commission on International Communications (1980-82). Finally, he has served as Chairman of the United Nations Committee of Parliamentarians for Global Action.

Born on 21 April 1941, Juan Somavia's early schooling took place in Chile, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United States and Ecuador. In 1958, he returned to his country to read law at the Catholic University of Chile. After graduating in 1962, he continued higher studies in economic development at the School of Law and Economics at the University of Paris from 1964 to 1966.

Mr Somavia was awarded a Doctorate Honoris Causa by Connecticut College in 1996, by the Universidad Católica del Perú in 1999, by the University of Turin in 2001, the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne in 2003, and in 2009 by the University of Coimbra and the University of Kassel.

Mr Somavia is married to Adriana Santa Cruz and they have two children and three grand-daughters.

Tags: ILO Director General

Unit responsible: Director-General's Office

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