Challenges and lessons learnt in combating contemporary forms of slavery: my address to slavery side event to UN Human Rights Council, 13 Sept 2013

First of all it is as always a pleasure and privilege to be here. And I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate Gulnara Shahinian on her tenure as Special Rapporteur on Slavery. In her term Gulnara has raised the profile of slavery in the UN and made crucial interventions on on particularly reprehensible forms of slavery such as bonded labour, domestic servitude and servile marriage. Her interventions have helped move forward understanding of and action on these issues.

I am also grateful to have the opportunity to pay tribute directly to the UK ambassador for the role of the UK in establishing this mandate. In doing this the UK keeps faith with the historical tradition of British leadership in the international struggle against slavery since the time of the great British abolitionists such as Clarkson and Equiano.

Anti-Slavery International also can trace our origin back to the end of the 18th Century when Thomas Clarkson was my most illustrious predecessor. As the oldest international human rights organization in the world we have a longer, historical, perspective on the issue than most and also a broader, geographical perspective than many.

So in considering the challenges in combating contemporary forms of slavery there are a couple of matters we would particularly highlight.

First through the history of the struggle against slavery there has been an erroneous belief in “silver bullets”. That is there has been a belief that we just need one particular thing to end the problem, whether that is ending the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or making slavery itself illegal. Each of these achievements has confined slavery further and further to the margins of society, but none of them have completely managed to eradicate slavery in any single country let alone the world. This is simply because slavery evolves faster than the systems hitherto established to eradicate it. What is needed is a more dynamic and permanent set of processes that will aim to progressively reduce the scope of slavery and contribute to the empowerment of those vulnerable to slavery.

Slavery is a diverse matter. The term slavery may describe situations as varied as that of a young woman in domestic servitude in a diplomatic household in London, to a family born into chattel slavery in Mauritania, to the young women and girls who are kept in forced labour in India,  the world’s largest democracy, to produce garments for the high streets of Europe and North America.

Each of these diverse situations requires a different set of response to ameliorate it.

But if we look more closely at these various forms of slavery as we have in Anti-Slavery over the years through both qualitative research and programmatic work we can see that slavery emerges at the conjunction of three broad factors: individual vulnerability usually this is poverty but it can simply be about physical weakness; social exclusion; and failure of government and the rule of law. 

The issue of social exclusion and with it discrimination is a fundamental one in slavery: In Latin America today many in forced labour are indigenous people. In Western Europe most people in slavery are migrants workers. In South Asia most people in slavery are Dalits or from other scheduled castes or minority groups.

This is important for a variety of reasons, not least that it inhibits the issue from becoming a political one: if this is being inflicted upon groups and individuals who the wider society simply does not like, then that wider community is more likely to tolerate the abuses if they see them and not raise their voice to demand that governments do their jobs to stop the problem.

And slavery is very much a failure of government and the rule of law. Child labourers enslaved in the garment workshops of Delhi tell how when the workshop owners fail to pay bribes to the police, the police come, arrest the children and hold them hostage, stopping work, until the bribes are paid. The appalling lack of capacity of Indian courts exacerbates further these factors. Generally Indian courts rule progressively when slavery cases come to trial. But the backlog of cases in those courts means that few do come to trial, effectively making a nonsense of the promises of that country’s laws and constitution.

So a central  front in the struggle to end slavery must relate to building the capacity of states to effect rule of law. There must be sufficient judges properly trained in human rights in general and in anti-slavery rights in particular to ensure that rule of law pertains within the states borders for all its citizens. And beyond those borders states should ensure that they deploy labour attaches to every country that their citizens travel to for work to press for the respecting of their rights and the building of the rule of law where their citizens seek decent work.

Of course there remains a huge lacuna with regards to international rule of law and this is the  question of how, in this globalising political economy, international businesses and individual business executives can be held to account on human rights issues in their supply chains. This is a central requirement in the struggle against contemporary slavery, particularly as they extend their operations into countries where extant evidence shows slavery is rife and regularly pollutes business supply chains.

The UK just last week became the first country to publish an action plan on the Ruggie principles. We would urge other Governments to follow this lead, and to introduce extra-territorial legislation to establish legal accountability of international business entities and their executives in relation to slavery in their supply chains. If history shows us one thing it is that a request for voluntary initiatives to respond to systemic abuses such as slavery do little to dent the system. What is needed is a change in the system such as that which the UK has pioneered on bribery.

The second major challenge that I wanted to consider was the comforting myth that slavery is a thing of the past. Such a belief is perhaps forgivable for the mass of ordinary people who live their lives beyond the challenges of reducing poverty and advancing human rights. But this myth is bought into by the mass of major humanitarian and development actors and here it is unacceptable because it threatens to fatally undermine the stated aspirations of those very actors. As development and anti-poverty work is currently practiced it is blind to the continuing atrocity of a minimum of 21 million people in slavery. Hence development practices often threaten to either absolutely or relatively worsen the situations of those in slavery. For example in 2005 during the west African famine our colleagues in the  organization Timidria noticed that slaves were being used in food for work programmes: they were being sent to these schemes by their masters who would then confiscate the ration card they received for their labour. In other words an important and well meaning humanitarian programme was contributing to the absolute worsening of their lives.

This is not an isolated case. Hence the imperative of reducing slavery needs to become a central focus of the entire international development sector. This can be obtained by two principle means. First slavery eradication must be made a post 2015 development goal recognising the fundamental constraint that slavery is on poverty reduction as well as the continuing human rights atrocity that it is. Second, and to advance this development goal, all aid actors must be required to state how their programmes address the challenges of slavery and non-gender based discrimination in their operations. It should be an acceptable response to say that it will have no impact, some programmes will necessarily respond to other priorities. But the requirement should be that at least they consider this matter in the same way as they are now rightly required to consider gender in programming.

Slavery is a human institution and like all human institutions it can be changed by human action. But we must stop just tinkering at its edges and instead aim to destroy it utterly. 

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