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Tackling modern-day slavery

Michelle Djekić | 20 December 2013

According to the inaugural Global Slavery Index report, 30 million people across the world are now living in slavery. In spite of its abolishment more than 100 years ago, slavery remains a grave and persistent  issue that still undermines the security of states today. As part of a range of criminality that continues to creep up on the attention scale, it has blocked development, violated human rights and served to undermine the rule of law.

China, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Pakistan currently have the most people enslaved. Slavery-like practices such as commercial sexual exploitation, compulsory labor, migrant labor and forced/child marriages often occur in places where human rights deprivations are already prevalent. The phenomenon is yet highly complex in nature, taking on many shapes and forms as it remains pervasive across the globe.

It is paramount to note that the secret realms of modern slavery continue to threaten the course of progress. These ‘hidden populations’ not wishing to be detected, include irregular migrants and/or marginalized victims living in secluded areas - in fear of social, legal and financial consequences such as stigmatization. Identifying, locating and accessing these victims presents a challenge since they are socially and economically ‘invisible’ as stated by Ms. Gulnara Shahinian, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences.

Shahinian elaborated on the clandestine nature of modern slavery during the 24th Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council – recently held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. She explained that it often occurs in remote areas within states or in the ‘private realm’ at home or in the community. Manifestations of domestic servitude such as forced labor demand a definitive human rights-approach. Unfree labor,  purportedly does not fall under the ‘public spheres of labor law, or criminal law’ such as sex trafficking. A human rights based approach overall, would mean an internationally agreed upon set of standards and investigative tools available to help prevent human rights abuses. Subsequently, states would be obliged to carry out measures against violations of citizens deprived of their rights to improve the situation and ensure ‘access to justice’. 

To secure the abolition of slavery and of the slave trade, a landmark legislation was drawn up in 1956, the ‘Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery’. Today, however, some states still lack the willingness to ratify this convention or enforce legislation at the national level to address governmental loopholes according to Shahinian.  

Policy and regulatory best practices

Mechanisms for implementation, follow-up and enforcement at the domestic level remain scarce and overall progress is slow. The two main barriers to the global eradication of slavery are public awareness and financial resources. Despite budget constraints, however, Greece plans to contribute 20.000 euros to the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on contemporary forms of slavery. Above all, though, governments need to be alerted of its existence to gauge the extent of the problem according to the Walk Free Foundation (WFF). Governments alone, can ratify, amend or implement laws to ensure the safety of victims and provide resource allocation for protection. Governments should continue to modernize or prepare strategies aimed at combating contemporary forms of modern slavery. During the Council session, Indonesia, shared Shahinian’s notion that ‘good practices’ such as legislation, awareness–raising and enforcement can be drawn to benefit states. The Government of Brazil remains a preeminent example in the fight against slavery. The Special Rapporteur extolled Brazil’s ongoing national strategy to combat modern-day slavery through its National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour (2003) that continues to carry out awareness-raising activities at the domestic level.

Embracing innovative approaches

Conversely, the United Nations can still assume a more active role in enforcing its universal laws against slavery. Free the Slaves claims that this is primarily due to a lack of financial resources to facilitate corrective action. Therefore, an innovative approach is recommended. Free the Slaves argues that having inspectors on the ground – similar to combating weapons of mass destruction - can also be a critical tactic to implement universal anti-slavery laws based on UN treaties. In addition, the use of science in human rights monitoring is becoming increasingly popular. Specialized entities such as the UN Space Agency are now able to utilize satellite imagery to detect enslaved peoples. Brazil’s charcoal camps, run by slaves to help supply the steel industry, have been easy to detect using satellite data.

At UN level, a far more streamlined approach is favored. Human trafficking continues to be targeted as a separate issue from slavery by UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo. The United States once again urged the Council to merge the two UN mandates in order to avoid overlaps, improve coordination between Special Rapporteur mechanisms, rationalize activities and reduce costs at the international level. However, the anatomy of modern slavery remains difficult to decipher since victims continue to be subjected to new and diverse forms of servitude worldwide. This type of targeted change warrants commitment and resources at both the national and international levels.