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December 2002/January 2003
A 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 marked;

• 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, visit


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