The very first words in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are: “All human beings are born free…”
And Article 3 begins: “No-one shall be held in slavery or servitude…”
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the most important global declaration of free states in history, let’s remember that human trafficking and modern slavery are first and foremost violations of the human rights of victims and survivors, whom states are legally and morally obligated to protect.
At Hope for Justice, we are proud to declare that we are a human rights-based anti-trafficking organisation.
We believe the rights of people affected by slavery should be the main focus of any response to modern slavery, because human rights and human trafficking are inextricably linked. Human rights violations committed against vulnerable people are drivers of trafficking as they increase such vulnerability. Examples include a person being denied the right to an adequate standard of living, or gender discrimination or stigma against a particularly community trying to access employment.
And human rights violations can also occur after the exploitation has ceased. For example, when a survivor is sent back to where the exploitation started without any measures to protect them against re-trafficking.
International human rights law and human trafficking
Freedom from slavery has been a central concern of international human rights law for decades, establishing:
1. the responsibility of the state as the main bearer of the obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of people at risk, victims and survivors; and
2. the holistic focus on victims and survivors’ realisation of the full corpus of human rights to which they are entitled.
In 1956, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery was designed to intensify national and international efforts towards the abolition of all forms of modern slavery.
Subsequent conventions of the International Labour Organisation and regional human rights treaties have further codified the prohibition of slavery, forced labour and practices akin to slavery. Slavery is expressly prohibited by the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Council of Europe Convention Against Trafficking (ECAT) recognises trafficking as a violation of human rights as well as an offence to the dignity and integrity of the human being and goes further in human rights protections to people trafficked into exploitation.
Human trafficking in law and practice nowadays
The array of international and national legal provisions to tackle modern slavery go way beyond human rights, as they mirror the many manifestations of the impact that modern slavery and human trafficking have on societies and economies.
Among the most prominent ones:
- Slavery is a crime and a security threat;
- Cross-border human trafficking is closely connected to irregular migration;
- Forced labour in the supply chain of products and services is a dilemma for consumers and producers; and
- Slavery is exacerbated by forced displacement due to conflict and climate change, inequalities, poverty and marginalisation.
Approaches to each of these manifestations should combine (rather than compete against each other) to provide a comprehensive framework to end modern slavery and uphold the human rights of people at risk of being trafficked, victims and survivors.
The criminal justice approach, for example, is not incompatible with the human rights approach.
The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children is supplementary to the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime, an international criminal justice instrument. Yet, the protocol calls on the respect of human rights of victims of trafficking.
However, the framing of slavery as primarily a ‘crime’ issue may place the emphasis on persecuting as many perpetrators as possible – and not enough on attending to the rights of survivors.
For example, when states make it a condition for the protection of survivors that they promptly co-operate with law enforcement and justice systems to prosecute alleged traffickers, instead of looking at whether it is in the best interest of the survivor to engage with the criminal justice system, and how early in their recovery journey they should do so.
Laws to regulate migration can also risk criminalising victims of trafficking due to their irregular migration status, instead of looking first at the crime that has been committed against them.
Whatever the approach, as we celebrate Human Rights Day, we are reminding governments, policy makers, companies and other actors that the full realisation of the human rights of people at risk, victims and survivors should be prime over all other aspects and approaches to end human trafficking.