Slavery, Though Legally Abolished, Remains Widespread In Current Forms, UN Reports
Slavery may have been legally abolished around the world, but it remains “a widespread and deeply rooted component of
contemporary life,” ranging from human trafficking to child labour to sexual servitude to bonded service, according to
the first-ever comparative analysis published by the United Nations.
“If slavery has been legally prohibited, but its more heinous characteristics have continued under a variety of
different designations, or through numerous illicit activities, on what grounds can we say that slavery has effectively
come to an end?” the report Entitled Unfinished Business, asks, calling for strengthened sanctions a΅d an end to
“If enslavement remains a fundamental issue in the absence of official recognition, on what grounds can we meaningfully
distinguish chattel slavery from analogous forms of behaviour?”
Commissioned by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO
) Slave Route project and prepared by Joel Quirk of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation
in the United Kingdom, the survey aims to provide the basis for dialogue on how to address contemporary slavery and the
enduring legacies of historical slave systems.
It cites human trafficking as an example of the need to strengthen sanctions. “Throughout the twentieth century,
trafficking was rarely treated as a specific offence, but would instead be covered indirectly as part of more general
injunctions dealing with issues such as prostitution or kidnapping,” it says, noting that over the last decade, many
countries have introduced anti-trafficking legislation, making it easier, at least on paper to pursue successful
“This trend needs to be expanded, particularly when it comes to labour exploitation, where penalties can be surprisingly
lenient, notwithstanding the seriousness of the offences involved,” it adds, giving as a “notable example” bonded labour
in the Indian subcontinent, where masters can usually expect, at worst, modest fines for kῥeping people in bondage.
“Laws against slavery and servitude need to be clear, comprehensive and contain appropriate penalties for abuses which
amount to crimes against humanity under international law.”
The report calls for effective enforcement of laws. “Throughout history, there have been few (if any) serious
repercussions for even the most heinous, systematic abuses,” it states. “This is largely a testament to widespread
government involvement. Most historical abuses have taken place because of, rather than in spite of, official
endeavours. This pervasive lack of accountabilityᾠhas continued to this day.
“Bonded labourers on the Indian subcontinent have been freed, slaves and ex-slaves in Mauritania have fostered new
opportunities, victims of trafficking have found refuge, yet their former masters have rarely been prosecuted. This
widespread impunity ensures that masters in many jurisdictions have little fear of serious penalties ῦor their predatory
behaviour, it adds.
The launch of the 139-page survey coincides with the International Film Festival against Exclusion and for Tolerance,
held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris from 5 to 13 December.