Problem of Enforcement: The United Nations and Slavery
By Beth Gould
Slavery has a long and sordid role in world history, and activists working
for its abolition often look to the United Nations to validate and enforce
their efforts. While the UN addresses the need to end all forms of slavery
through far-reaching declarations and treaties, its effectiveness in
the realm of enforcement has met with modest returns. In order to understand
the problems of using an organization such as the UN to spearhead the
abolition of slavery, it is instructive to first examine its history
on the issue.
The UN has been interested in abolishing slavery and slave-like practices
since its inception. In 1948 the Office of the High Council for Human
Rights passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is unequivocal
in regard to slavery. Article 4 states: “No one shall be held
in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited
in all their forms;” Article 5: “No one shall be subjected
to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;”
and Article 6: “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere
as a person before the law.” This Declaration is signed by every
member country of the UN, although not all have ratified it into law.
Additionally, in 1953 the UN formally adopted the Slave Convention,
which was drawn up by the League of Nations in 1926 and ratified voluntarily
by over 100 members of the UN. The Convention’s original definition
of slavery was broadened to include the practices and institutions of
debt bondage, servile forms of marriage, and the exploitation of children
and adolescents. This resulted in the Proclamation of Tehran (1968),
which was an analysis of the progress that member countries had made
in enforcing the Declaration of Human Rights, and assessed that full
implementation of its tenets were lacking. It encouraged its members
towards vigilance in enforcing human rights domestically, but offered
no penalty if ignored.
The efforts of the UN towards the abolition of slavery center around
the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which met for the
first time in 1975. This group undertakes a series of investigations,
usually focusing on a particular aspect of slavery, such as child labor,
debt bondage and prostitution. The group, which meets for one week each
year and reports to the Sub-Commission on Human Rights, has become responsible
for making recommendations that will help states bring about the end
of slavery. Following are some of their recommendations from 1991.
• That a voluntary or trust fund be created which would make it
possible for more directly-concerned organizations to take part in the
Working Group’s activities;
• Where child labor might be involved, as in the making of carpets,
the product should bear a special mark certifying that children have
not been employed. Consumers should be alerted to demand products so
• Information campaigns be launched for the boycotting of goods
produced on the basis of exploited child labor;
• Enlist the help of public personalities to promote respect for
human rights and to make audiences conscious of the problems of exploitation;
• UN organs, specialized agencies, development banks and other
inter governmental bodies avoid bonded labor in development projects
with which they are involved, and contribute to its elimination.
On December 2, 2002, the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery,
Secretary General Kofi Annan gave a speech urging countries to pass
two new protocols regarding slavery: the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress
and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and
the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air and Sea.
He also urged both governments and NGOs to donate money to the Working
Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which needs a minimum of $300,000
to complete its mandate of reducing or eliminating slavery worldwide.
The most obvious problem in the UN resolutions is the fact that almost
no countries openly condone the existence of slavery within their borders.
They might not be vigilant in their efforts to prosecute individuals
who are engaged in these practices, but most would say in front of the
General Assembly that they are against slavery. This leaves the UN to
combat individuals who are taking advantage of the most voiceless members
of their society. While the idea of boycotting slave-made items may
seem a good idea, it is difficult to implement because most slave labor
goes into products not sold in the end market, such as cloth or cocoa
beans, and are difficult to trace.
If the UN is committed to enforcing its Declaration of Human Rights
and thereby ending slavery in all its forms, it has to take stronger
measures against countries that allow slave use to flourish. These could
include sanctions or even a re-evaluation of membership for countries
who flout the document that is one of the central precepts of the UN’s
existence. And perhaps most important, it needs to help provide resources
to empower people who are victims of this predatory practice.
To find out more about the UN and their efforts to abolish slavery,