Forms of Contemporary Slavery

To many, the term “slavery” conveys images of the transatlantic slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with all its deplorable horrors. Relegated to a barbaric past, few realize that the enslavement of human beings exists even today and remains a grave problem across our world. From traditional chattel slavery in Sudan to the contentious issue of trafficking in persons, international organizations such as Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves estimate that at least 27 million people are held in slavery like situations today. (Because of the hidden nature of modern slavery, it is difficult to determine precise numbers and data on modern slaves.)

Persistent modern-day slavery covers a variety of human rights violations and includes the practices of child labor, bonded labor, serfdom, servile marriage, trafficking in persons (especially women and children), and the exploitation of domestic and migrant labor. Such slavery-like practices remain clandestine in nature and, in certain cases, accepted as a part of society, making them difficult to root out and eliminate. Public ignorance has contributed to governmental and international inaction to abolish such forms of slavery. The problem is compounded by the fact that, worldwide, victims of contemporary slavery are characterized by their poverty and vulnerability.

An examination of international instruments to eliminate slavery and slavery-like practices reveals an ongoing evolution in the understanding of slavery and the many forms of enslavement. The Vienna Congress Declaration on the Universal Abolition of Slave Trade was adopted in 1815, though it was only in 1926 that the League of Nations gave an international definition to slavery. The 1926 Slavery Convention and its 1956 protocol “Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery” defined slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

The slave trade was defined to include all acts involved in the capture, acquisition, or disposal of a person with intent to reduce the person to slavery; all acts involved in the acquisition of a slave with a view to selling or exchanging the person; all acts of disposal by sale or exchange of a slave acquired with a view to selling or exchanging; and, in general, every act of trade or transport in slaves.

The Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery brought into focus institutions and practices resembling slavery but which were not covered by the Slavery Convention, such as debt bondage, servile forms of marriage, and the exploitation of children and adolescents. The objective of the Supplementary Convention was to intensify national and international efforts to abolish slavery and all institutions and practices similar to slavery.

Content by Mini Singh
Research Analyst, FSE

Content in Arabic by Raja El Habti
Research Assistant, FSE