Slavery in international law

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Slavery in international law is governed by a number of treaties, conventions and declarations. Foremost among these is the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) that states in Article 4: “no one should be held in slavery or servitude, slavery in all of its forms should be eliminated.” [1]


International law protections

Protection from slavery is reiterated in the Slavery Convention. [2] This is affected by the Optional Protocol to the Abolition of Slavery [3] and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). [4] The ICCPR, governed by the Human Rights Committee, [5] is responsible for internationally monitoring present conditions of slavery.

Slavery System under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work

Slavery is any system in which principles of property law are applied to people, allowing individuals to own, buy and sell other individuals, as a de jure form of property. A slave is unable to withdraw unilaterally from such an arrangement and works without remuneration. Many scholars now use the term chattel slavery to refer to this specific sense of legalized, de jure slavery. In a broader sense, however, the word slavery may also refer to any situation in which an individual is de facto forced to work against their own will. Scholars also use the more generic terms such as unfree labour or forced labour to refer to such situations. However, and especially under slavery in broader senses of the word, slaves may have some rights and protections according to laws or customs.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights United Nations General Assembly resolution adopted in 1966

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Resolution 2200A (XXI) on 16 December 1966, and in force from 23 March 1976 in accordance with Article 49 of the covenant. Article 49 allowed that the covenant would enter into force three months after the date of the deposit of the thirty-fifth instrument of ratification or accession. The covenant commits its parties to respect the civil and political rights of individuals, including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial. As of August 2017, the Covenant has 172 parties and six more signatories without ratification.

Historical abolition of slavery

Abolitionism has its roots in the 1807 Abolition of Slavery Act of Great Britain. Many academics in the field perceive this as the beginning of the end of the traditional form of slavery: chattel slavery. In the 19th century, Britain controlled the majority of the world through its colonies. Consequently, in passing this law to abolish slavery, the British Parliament abolished slavery in the vast majority of its colonies.

Slave Trade Act 1807 UK parliament act of 1807

The Slave Trade Act 1807, officially An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom prohibiting the slave trade in the British Empire. Although it did not abolish the practice of slavery, it did encourage British action to press other nation states to abolish their own slave trades.

Great Britain island in the North Atlantic off the north-west coast of continental Europe

Great Britain is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of continental Europe. With an area of 209,331 km2 (80,823 sq mi), it is the largest of the British Isles, the largest European island, and the ninth-largest island in the world. In 2011, Great Britain had a population of about 61 million people, making it the world's third-most populous island after Java in Indonesia and Honshu in Japan. The island of Ireland is situated to the west of Great Britain, and together these islands, along with over 1,000 smaller surrounding islands, form the British Isles archipelago.

Parliament of the United Kingdom Supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom

The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known internationally as the UK Parliament, British Parliament, or Westminster Parliament, and domestically simply as Parliament or Westminster, is the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom, the Crown dependencies and the British Overseas Territories. It alone possesses legislative supremacy and thereby ultimate power over all other political bodies in the UK and the overseas territories. Parliament is bicameral but has three parts, consisting of the Sovereign (Queen-in-Parliament), the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The two houses meet in the Palace of Westminster in the City of Westminster, one of the inner boroughs of the capital city, London.

Customarily, freedoms from slavery can also be found prior to the 19th century under the phrase "freedom from oppression and tyranny." Because slavery is a condition of complete and total submission of one person to another, often with the exertion of force or power of the owner over the submissive, the phrase "freedom from oppression and tyranny" accurately encompasses the right to freedom from slavery.

The United States Declaration of Independence, [6] the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, [7] the African Charter of Human Rights, [8] and the Constitution of South Africa [9] all present the idea that human beings should be free from tyranny and oppression. Although slavery continued to persist in some countries after these documents were written – namely, the United States, in which slavery continued until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 – the underlying norm of this right is present. Through customary practice and the abolition of slavery, the international community has adopted the right of each person to be free from slavery.

United States Declaration of Independence 1776 assertion of colonial Americas independence from Great Britain

The United States Declaration of Independence is the pronouncement adopted by the Second Continental Congress meeting at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1776. The Declaration explained why the Thirteen Colonies at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain regarded themselves as thirteen independent sovereign states, no longer under British rule. With the Declaration, these new states took a collective first step toward forming the United States of America. The declaration was signed by representatives from New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen foundational document of the French Revolution

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, set by France's National Constituent Assembly in 1789, is a human civil rights document from the French Revolution.

Constitution of South Africa supreme and fundamental law of South Africa

The Constitution of South Africa is the supreme law of the Republic of South Africa. It provides the legal foundation for the existence of the republic, it sets out the rights and duties of its citizens, and defines the structure of the Government. The current constitution, the country's fifth, was drawn up by the Parliament elected in 1994 in the South African general election, 1994. It was promulgated by President Nelson Mandela on 18 December 1996 and came into effect on 4 February 1997, replacing the Interim Constitution of 1993.

Slavery Convention

The first large-scale move to abolish slavery by the international community came in 1926 with the Slavery Convention and again in 1957 when the Supplementary Convention came into power. The 1926 Slavery Convention provides the first international definition of slavery as:

The 1926 Slavery Convention or the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery was an international treaty created under the auspices of the League of Nations and first signed on 25 September 1926. It was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on 9 March 1927, the same day it went into effect. The objective of the Convention was to confirm and advance the suppression of slavery and the slave trade.

"the status or condition of a person over whom any or all the powers attaching to the right ownership are exercised...[and] included all acts involved in the capture, acquisition, or disposal of a person with intent to reduce him to slavery; acts involved in the acquisition of a slave with a view to selling or exchanging him; all acts of disposal by sale or exchange of a slave acquired with a view to being sold or exchanged, and in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves." [10]

Although this document provides the concrete definition of slavery, its definition is limited in the types of slavery it includes. Instead, it is descriptive of chattel slavery, most commonly understood as the plantation slavery in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, even though chattel slavery was significantly more widespread and was not limited to one country alone. It is for this reason that the 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery was signed. It gives a more comprehensive definition of slavery to include debt bondage, serfdom, or any practice where a woman is promised or given into marriage on payment of money and is without the right to refuse the marriage, the husband of a woman has the right to transfer her to another person, a woman is liable to be inherited by another upon the death of her husband, or any practice where a child under 18 years of ages is exploited for his or her labour. [11] The 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery came into force on April 30, 1957 and of 2002 there were 97 states partied to the convention.

A plantation economy is an economy based on agricultural mass production, usually of a few commodity crops grown on large farms called plantations. Plantation economies rely on the export of cash crops as a source of income. Prominent crops included cotton, rubber, sugar cane, tobacco, figs, rice, kapok, sisal, and species in the genus Indigofera, used to produce indigo dye.

The Slavery Convention and its supplementary document are beneficial in providing an international definition of slavery; however, there is no significant enforcement behind these documents. Both are declarations made by the collaboration of the international community, and agreements that signatories would modify their national laws in accordance with the convention, with the assistance of the United Nations if necessary; however, there are no consequences outlined in either document that provide incentive for signatories to abide by the convention

Human Rights Committee

The Human Rights Committee is governed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which entered into force on March 23, 1976. Article 8 of this Covenant states: “No one shall be held in slavery; slavery and the slave trade in all their forms shall be prohibited. No one shall be held in servitude. No one shall be required to perform force or compulsory labour." [4] The ICCPR outlines, in part IV, the obligations of states to uphold the freedom from slavery. All states are required to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the rights of the Covenant are being implemented. A state’s initial report must be within one year of acceding the Covenant and after this, whenever the committee requests a report (usually every four years). [4] In addition to the submission of reports, article 41 of the Covenant makes it possible for the Committee to consider inter-state complaints, and furthermore, the First Optional Protocol to the Covenant give the Committee the capacity investigate individual complaints with regards to violations of the Covenant by state parties. [12]

Observations of slavery


Since coming into force, the Human Rights Committee has commented on conditions of slavery in numerous countries and has provided these countries with recommendations as to how they should proceed to abolish slavery. In Mali, the committee noted that the State party has not taken clear action in response the reports of slavery like practices and hereditary servitude in the country. In acknowledging this, the committee recommended that the state should conduct research to determine if these conditions of slavery still exist, and if they do to take action. [13] The committee also noted concerns of child trafficking into Côte d'Ivoire, where children were then being subjected to forced labour and slavery. In response to this phenomenon, the committee recommended that the Malian government take measures to prosecute the perpetrators of this traffic, and research more precise details regarding this situation for the committee analysis. [13]

Serbia in part under United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo

The committee observed situations of trafficking of human beings, namely women and children, in Serbia Kosovo part under local municipal Kosovo Albanian administration and United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo rule , and corresponding reports that the perpetrators of these acts were going unpunished. The committee recommended that the Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in collaboration with the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government (PISG) should ensure that there is adequate investigation of these crimes and victims have access to lawyers, health care, and other forms of assistance. [14]


The Human Rights Committee monitored trafficking in Norway. Here the committee recognizes that Norway has adopted the previous positive measures previously suggested; however, it notes that there are still reports of human trafficking, particularly women, and of female genital mutilation. The committee recommends further measures be taken to eradicate practices, as well as those to protect victims and witnesses. [15]

Modern slavery that falls under international law

Debt bondage

Debt bondage is the most common form of slavery today. It is a condition in which a person “pledges him or herself against a loan of money, but the length and nature of the service is undefined, and the labor does not diminish the original debt.” [16] Debt bondage was included and defined as a form of slavery under the 1956 Supplementary Convention on Slavery. However, its many modern forms continue to include pawning, peonage, and worker debt. [17] In India, debt bondage has been illegal since 1976; however, due to widespread poverty in the country, it continues to exist, as a man may need a loan to finance a wedding, funeral, medicine, fertilizer, or a fine. [17] Because the interest rates on these debts as so high, debts are often inherited and children may replace their fathers or siblings. Debt bondage can also be incurred by specific industries – quarrying, carpet-making, agriculture, and fisheries – where the cost of equipment and supplies falls on the worker who needs a loan to pay for them. [17]

Forced prostitution

Forced prostitution and sexual slavery are considered contemporary manifestations of this historical crime, and can be found anywhere in the world. Women are often entrapped by deceit or coercion with the promise of better life and remain entrapped by force or debt bondage. [18] Forced marriage can also be considered a form of slavery, notably when the bride has no right or opportunity to refuse marriage. This form of marriage can also result out of a kidnapping of girls in order to sell them as brides, a widespread phenomena in China. [19] Once married and raped, there girls are often kept under lock and key until they have a child, at which time they will be less likely to leave because they do not want to abandon their child. [19]

Child slavery

Child slavery is also considered a contemporary form of slavery, although its does come with debate as to what constitutes child slavery. However, child prostitution is widely considered a form of slavery in which children, mostly from South East Asia, South Asia, and Latin America, “are sold by their parents either because they are destitute, have too many mouths to feed, or are simply greedy”. [20] On the other hand, in some cases of child prostitution, when parents give their children up to traffickers, they are deceived into believing that their child will earn good money, get an education, or learn a trade. [21]

Forced labour

Forced labour can also be imposed by governments who “conscript their own subjects and put them to work for minimal, or no pay, and for varying lengths of time”. [22] When imposed by governments, forced labour does not include military conscription or penal labour.[ according to whom? ] Forced labour can, likewise, be used simply to cut production costs by private and public industries (e.g. cocoa plantations), or can be a form of involuntary servitude in the private sector – sweatshops. [23] Bales refers to this type of slavery as contract slavery, where “contracts are offered which guarantee employment, perhaps in a workshop or factory, but when the workers are taken to their place of employment they discover that they have instead been taken into is a way of making slavery seem legitimate and necessary”. [24]

See also

Related Research Articles

Human rights Inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled

Human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behaviour and are regularly protected as natural and legal rights in municipal and international law. They are commonly understood as inalienable, fundamental rights "to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being" and which are "inherent in all human beings", regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin, or any other status. They are applicable everywhere and at every time in the sense of being universal, and they are egalitarian in the sense of being the same for everyone. They are regarded as requiring empathy and the rule of law and imposing an obligation on persons to respect the human rights of others, and it is generally considered that they should not be taken away except as a result of due process based on specific circumstances; for example, human rights may include freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture, and execution.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights Declaration adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a historic document that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its third session on 10 December 1948 as Resolution 217 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France. Of the then 58 members of the United Nations, 48 voted in favor, none against, eight abstained, and two did not vote.

Abolitionism movement to end slavery

Abolitionism, or the abolitionist movement, was the movement to end slavery. This term can be used both formally and informally. In Western Europe and the Americas, abolitionism was a historic movement that sought to end the Atlantic slave trade and set slaves free. King Charles I of Spain, usually known as Emperor Charles V, was following the example of Louis X of France, who had abolished slavery within the Kingdom of France in 1315. He passed a law which would have abolished colonial slavery in 1542, although this law was not passed in the largest colonial states, and it was not enforced as a result. In the late 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church officially condemned the slave trade in response to a plea by Lourenço da Silva de Mendouça, and it was also vehemently condemned by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839. The abolitionist movement only started in the late 18th century, however, when English and American Quakers began to question the morality of slavery. James Oglethorpe was among the first to articulate the Enlightenment case against slavery, banning it in the Province of Georgia on humanitarian grounds, and arguing against it in Parliament, and eventually encouraging his friends Granville Sharp and Hannah More to vigorously pursue the cause. Soon after his death in 1785, Sharp and More united with William Wilberforce and others in forming the Clapham Sect.

Debt bondage Persons pledge of their labor or services as security for the repayment for a debt or other obligation

Debt bondage, also known as debt slavery or bonded labour, is the pledge of a person's services as security for the repayment for a debt or other obligation, where the terms of the repayment are not clearly or reasonably stated, and the person who is holding the debt and thus has some control over the laborer, does not intend to ever admit that the debt has been repaid. The services required to repay the debt may be undefined, and the services' duration may be undefined, thus allowing the person supposedly owed the debt to demand services indefinitely. Debt bondage can be passed on from generation to generation.

Anti-Slavery International is an international non-governmental organisation, registered charity and a advocacy group, based in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1839, it is the world's oldest international human rights organisation. It works exclusively against slavery and related abuses.

Labor rights or workers' rights are a group of legal and human rights relating to labor relations between workers and employers, codified in national and international labor and employment law. In general, these rights influence working conditions in relations of employment. One of the most central is the right to freedom of association, otherwise known as the right to organize. Workers organized in trade unions exercise the right to collective bargaining to improve working conditions.

Economic, social and cultural rights are socio-economic human rights, such as the right to education, right to housing, right to adequate standard of living, right to health, victims' rights and the right to science and culture. Economic, social and cultural rights are recognised and protected in international and regional human rights instruments. Member states have a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights and are expected to take "progressive action" towards their fulfilment.

The International Bill of Human Rights was the name given to UN General Assembly Resolution 217 (III) and two international treaties established by the United Nations. It consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with its two Optional Protocols and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The two covenants entered into force in 1976, after a sufficient number of countries had ratified them.

Slavery in contemporary Africa

The continent of Africa is one of the regions most rife with contemporary slavery. Slavery in Africa has a long history, within Africa since before historical records, but intensifying with the Arab slave trade and again with the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the demand for slaves created an entire series of kingdoms which existed in a state of perpetual warfare in order to generate the prisoners of war necessary for the lucrative export of slaves. These patterns have persisted into the colonial period during the late 19th and early 20th century. Although the colonial authorities attempted to suppress slavery from about 1900, this had very limited success, and after decolonization, slavery continues in many parts of Africa even though being technically illegal.

Slavery in the 21st century refers to the institutions of slavery that continue to exist in the present day

Contemporary slavery, also known as modern slavery or neo-slavery, refers to institutional slavery that continues to occur in present-day society. Estimates of the number of slaves today range from around 21 million to 46 million, depending on the method used to form the estimate and the definition of slavery being used. The estimated number of slaves is debated, as there is no universally agreed definition of modern slavery, those in slavery are often difficult to identify, and adequate statistics are often not available.

Human rights in the Republic of the Congo

The Republic of Congo gained independence from French Equatorial Africa in 1960. It was a one-party Marxist-Leninist state from 1969 to 1991. Multi-party elections have been held since 1992, although a democratically elected government was ousted in the 1997 civil war and President Denis Sassou Nguesso has ruled for 26 of the past 36 years. The political stability and development of hydrocarbon production made the Republic of the Congo the fourth largest oil producer in the Gulf of Guinea region, providing the country with relative prosperity despite instability in some areas and unequal distribution of oil revenue nationwide.
The Congolese Human Right Observatory claims a number of unresolved and pending issues in the country.
Discrimination against Pygmies is widespread, the result of cultural biases, especially traditional relationships with the Bantu, as well as more contemporary forms of exploitation.

The Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the full title of which is the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, is a 1956 United Nations treaty which builds upon the 1926 Slavery Convention, which is still operative and which proposed to secure the abolition of slavery and of the slave trade, and the Forced Labour Convention of 1930, which banned forced or compulsory labour, by banning debt bondage, serfdom, child marriage, servile marriage, and child servitude.

The Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour (SAP-FL) is the International Labour Organization (ILO) Programme combating forced labour and related issues. SAP-FL strives to provide evidence-based policy advice, tools and services to enable governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations and other partners to take effective, coordinated and rights-based action to prevent and eradicate forced labour. SAP-FL indicates that all human trafficking leads to forced labour.

The Slave Route Project

The Slave Route Project is a UNESCO initiative that was officially launched in 1994 in Ouidah, Benin. It is rooted in the mandate of the Organization, which believes that ignorance or concealment of major historical events constitutes an obstacle to mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation among peoples. The project breaks the silence surrounding the slave trade and slavery that has affected all continents and caused great upheavals that have shaped our modern societies. In studying the causes, the modalities and the consequences of slavery and the slave trade, the project seeks to enhance the understanding of diverse histories and heritages stemming from this global tragedy.

Debt bondage in India

Debt bondage in India or Bandhua Mazdoori was legally abolished in 1976 but it remains prevalent, with weak enforcement of the law by governments. Bonded labour involves the exploitive interlinking of credit and labour agreements that devolve into slave-like exploitation due to severe power imbalances between the lender and the borrower.

Although slavery is recognized as being illegal around the world by international treaties and conventions, evidence has shown that there is still existing slavery in Yemen, and the number of slaves is in fact growing. Slavery affects and inhibits many basic human rights, and was specifically abolished by Yemen in 1962. The fact that slavery is alleged to still exist is a major human rights issue.

The right to family life is the right of all individuals to have their established family life respected, and to have and maintain family relationships. This right is recognised in a variety of international human rights instruments, including Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


  1. United Nations. "Universal Declaration on Human Rights." General Assembly of the United Nations. 1948.
  2. "Slavery Convention." Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, September 25, 1926: 1.
  3. "Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices." Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, September 7, 1956.
  4. 1 2 3 General Assembly. "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." 2200A (XXI). Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1966.
  5. General Assembly. "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." 2200A (XXI) while the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1966.
  6. "Declaration of Independence." United States of America, July 4, 1776
  7. Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen." National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789
  8. "African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights." African Union, June 27, 1981
  9. "Constitution of South Africa." South Africa, May 6, 1996
  10. "Slavery Convention." Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, September 25, 1926: 1
  11. "Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices." Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, September 7, 1956.
  12. "Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." New York: United Nations, 1966.
  13. 1 2 "Concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee: Mali. 04/16/2003." CCPR/CO/77/MLI. Human Rights Committee, 2003: 16
  14. "Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 40 of the Covenant, Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Kosovo (Serbia)." CCPR/C/UNK/CO/1. Human Rights Committee, 2006: 16
  15. "Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under article 40 of the Covenant, Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Norway." CCPR/C/NOR/CO/5. Human Rights Committee, 2006: 12
  16. Bales, Kevin. "Expendable People: Slavery in the Age of Globalization." Journal of International Affairs 53, no. 2 (2000): 463.
  17. 1 2 3 Miers, Suzanne. "Contemporary Forms of Slavery." Canadian Journal of African Studies 34, no. 3 (2000): 724.
  18. Miers, Suzanne. "Contemporary Forms of Slavery." Canadian Journal of African Studies 34, no. 3 (2000): 729.
  19. 1 2 Miers, Suzanne. "Contemporary Forms of Slavery." Canadian Journal of African Studies 34, no. 3 (2000): 737.
  20. Miers, Suzanne. "Contemporary Forms of Slavery." Canadian Journal of African Studies 34, no. 3 (2000): 731.
  21. Miers, Suzanne. "Contemporary Forms of Slavery." Canadian Journal of African Studies 34, no. 3 (2000): 732.
  22. Miers, Suzanne. "Contemporary Forms of Slavery". Canadian Journal of African Studies 34, no. 3 (2000): 733.
  23. Miers, Suzanne. "Contemporary Forms of Slavery". Canadian Journal of African Studies 34, no. 3 (2000): 734.
  24. Bales, Kevin. "Expendable People: Slavery in the Age of Globalization." Journal of International Affairs 53, no. 2 (2000): 464.