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Statements Special Procedures

Statement by Ms. gulnara shahinian, Special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences, at the 24th session of the Human Rights Council

12 September 2013

12 September 2013

Mr President, Distinguished Representatives, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today, I am presenting my final annual report to the Council in my capacity as Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences. My second term as Special Rapporteur will come to an end in April 2014. I am grateful to all who supported my work over the last six years, and in particular for the excellent assistance and dedication provided by the Special Procedures Secretariat within OHCHR. I am honoured by the trust placed in my by this Council, by all the Member States I engaged with, civil society, and the persons affected by slavery-like practices who shared their experiences with me. And finally, I am also grateful for the cooperation my mandate has enjoyed with the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, and within civil society, with Anti-Slavery International.

Mr. President
We know that comprehensive figures on the number of individuals subjected to contemporary forms of slavery are difficult to obtain. This is because contemporary slavery takes many complex forms, and often occurs in hard to reach areas of the country or what is perceived as the ‘private realm’, such as in the case of domestic servitude. Slavery-like practices also disproportionally impact on groups of persons already suffering from marginalization, discrimination (including caste-based discrimination) or who are otherwise vulnerable, difficult to identify and reach, such as children, migrant or domestic workers, and other groups.

Nonetheless, we have access to some figures which provide us a glimpse into the magnitude of some forms of slavery-like practices around the world today. When I came into office in 2008, the ILO estimated that at least 12.3 million people worldwide were in some form of forced labor or bondage. 1According to the results of a thorough study undertaking by the ILO more recently however, it is now estimated that there are in fact 21 million victims of forced labor globally. While staggering, this is only a partial number of the total victims of slavery. It is ‘the tip of the iceberg’, since it does not include many forms of contemporary slavery such as child slavery, bonded labor, servile marriage and domestic servitude. As importantly, these figures only represent an incomplete picture of reality, due to the virtual ‘invisibility’ of many of the victims. Many of these victims include children without birth registrations, and who are ‘unaccounted for’, as well as many other victims who live in remote areas, may be confined within private homes, lack identity documents, or have never been registered in the labor market. These and other factors tend to make victims socially and economically ‘invisible’, and difficult to identify and include when establishing figures on contemporary forms of slavery.

Improved methodologies in data-collection, human rights analysis and monitoring over the last years, are nonetheless providing us with a better understanding of both the magnitude and dynamics of slavery-like practices, and their linkages to violations of a whole range of intersecting human rights. Similarly, we have an improved understanding today of some of the legal, institutional and implementation challenges in addressing many contemporary forms of slavery. While sobering, this provides us with a better overall understanding of the reality and continued relevance of our fight against contemporary forms of slavery.

And yet, as my mandate term comes to its end, there are considerable achievements to report. In my last report to this Council, I have sought to provide an overview of some of these good practices, as well as the challenges and lessons learnt in combating some of the more pervasive forms of contemporary slavery. An area where significant progress has taken place is the development of relevant national and international normative frameworks.

Strengthening of national and international normative frameworks
At the national level, various countries, in inter alia, South America, Africa, Asia and Europe, have enacted domestic legislation either directly prohibiting and sanctioning contemporary forms of slavery, or regulating practices that have been found to indirectly perpetuate slavery-like practices. These include laws establishing regulatory systems for private employment agencies, and strengthening protections afforded to migrant works. The international community has also responded to some of the challenges and opportunities present in the globalization of the information and economic spheres. For example, non-binding international frameworks have been developed, such as the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were endorsed by this Council in June 2011.

Measures enhancing enforcement
Some countries have also taken steps to ensure that their laws can be effectively enforced. For example, some countries have strengthened labor inspection entities, improved legal enforcement through the courts, adopted bilateral agreements on domestic migrant workers, and developed national strategies, and government coordination mechanisms. At the regional level, regional human rights instruments, courts, economic blocs, and region-wide cooperation agreements, such as exist on human trafficking, can also play a vital role in enforcing human rights standards which protect vulnerable persons from slavery-like practices. In view of their significant influence, and regional knowledge and links, the role of regional actors is vital. I stand ready to continue to lend my support to them, and encourage them in particular to continue to develop comprehensive regional implementation programs to address slavery, such as has been done in the trafficking sector for example.

Other measures
In addition to some of the progress I note above, ongoing efforts are also being undertaken around less visible but extremely important activities. These include awareness-raising and prevention campaigns, such as for law enforcement officials, civil servants, global companies, trade unions, consumers and the public at large. Some examples include the ‘Buy Responsibly’ campaign which examines the global supply chains of certain products, and the ‘Slavery Footprint’ campaign which attempts to increase consumer awareness.

Mr. President
With regard to all of these activities and initiatives, I have found that the common denominator and link between all forms of contemporary slavery - be it debt bondage, servile marriages, child slavery, serfdom, forced labor or traditional forms of slavery – is the foundational premise of international human rights standards. A human rights based approach provides an internationally agreed upon set of standards and analytical tool which can be used to prevent violations, and to identify relevant situations, victims, rights holders and duty bearers. It also provides the basis for sanctions, compensation, assistance, and legal as well as other types of remedies, when violations occur.

While national authorities are the primary entities responsible for upholding human rights of all persons within their jurisdiction, including by preventing slavery and holding companies and individuals accountable, human rights standards and approaches can and should be used by all actors, private or public, as the benchmark for prevention and success in remedial measures. Moreover, it is the most effective tool to analyze the cross-cutting issues and the multiple forms of discrimination that render people vulnerable to slavery, and to remaining entrapped, sometimes for generations. We know that in many situations, women, children, and members of marginalized groups such as persons subjected to caste-based discrimination, are particularly vulnerable. We know that the issues and responses must surely include, but also go beyond labor law. A human rights based approach is instrumental to allow us to recognize and address slavery-like situations when they fall outside what is usually perceived as the public spheres of labor law, or criminal law (e.g. sex trafficking). This is the case with servile marriages, domestic servitude and some forms of child slavery which often take place exclusively within the so called ‘private sphere’ and home, and are frequently accepted by the community.

Challenges and lessons learnt

Mr. President
In my thematic report, I outline as well how some legal limitations continue to weaken our efforts to combat slavery. These include the failure by some States to ratify the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, to enact implementing domestic legislation, or to rectify legal loopholes in their legislation. I refer to a number of institutional deficits that impede effective enforcement of relevant laws, such as low levels of awareness and capacity within labor inspectors’ offices, corruption, and lack of resources.

We are also hampered by other difficulties. For example, because contemporary forms of slavery often involve ‘hidden populations’ who do not necessarily wish to be detected, such as irregular migrants, or marginalized victims living in remote locations - identifying, locating and accessing these victims presents a challenge. Moreover, victims usually bear no outward signs of being trapped in a situation of slavery, and often shy away from being noticed or answering questions for fear of violence, or retaliation. Linked to this, the record to date on persecutions and convictions for slavery, and on the protection afforded to victims of slavery who do come forward, has not been encouraging and undermines the trust of victims. This trust is also undermined in many cases by the lack of enforcement of the law or of court decisions, together with issues of corruption.

Mr. President,
I would like to encourage and support Member States as well as all other relevant actors, to continue on an urgent basis to address these gaps and deficiencies. The gravity of slavery-like practices from a human rights perspective, renders it an issue of the utmost priority - that must be addressed despite the frequent silence of the victims. It is also an issue of utmost priority for international actors, for donors, for development and for humanitarian actors. Severe austerity measures and other economic measures imposed on populations have a human cost, usually affecting most immediately and profoundly the most vulnerable members of society – forcing them deeper into poverty, and even slavery-like conditions. Similarly, acute humanitarian crisis provoked by natural disasters or conflict, can create double victims; victims of the crisis who have often lost all their worldly possessions and livelihoods, and also victims of different forms of slavery, when victims see no alternative to these negative coping mechanisms. In such contexts for example, girls are often forced or sold into marriage, which can become a situation of servile marriage. The contexts and conditions in which slavery can occur are varied – reminding us that our scope for action is also wide and varied.

Country Situations

Mr. President
Since my last report to this council, I have visited Kazakhstan and Madagascar. I wish to thank both governments for their invitation and cooperation during these visits.

I undertook a visit to Kazakhstan from 24 September to 01 October 2012. I found that the Government of Kazakhstan had made some significant progress in the recent past in the combat against slavery, such as in tobacco plantations. However, some of these these gains have been under threat, due in part to proposed revisions to the law relating to work permits, which complicate the process and may lead to an increase in undocumented and irregular migrants and workers. During the visit I also noted the need for long term solutions such as ensuring access to education and medical services to all - foreigners and nationals alike. For example, revisions in the law being considered during my visit, made it difficult for the children of undocumented migrant workers to attend school. Similarly, I found that these migrants and their families did not have access to basic medical treatment, unless it was on an emergency basis.

With regard to these and related issues, I have urged the Kazakh authorities to adopt a bottom-up approach when formulating approaches to address slavery, such as by consulting with the regions most affected by slavery, including local governments, civil society, the private sector, affected communities and other stakeholders. I noted that the “The National Council for Child Protection has been effective in preventing worst forms of child labour in the tobacco industry”, and made recommendations to establish similar structures in other offices such as within the Prosecutor General’s Office. More recently, I was extremely pleased to learn that since my visit, a number of my recommendations, including with regard to relevant laws and revisions, have been accepted by the government. I commend the Government of Kazakhstan for these speedy actions and urge them to urgently put in place proper enforcement and monitoring mechanisms to ensure implementation of these. In this regard, I would be happy to continue to engage with the Government of Kazakhstan, including through a follow up visit.

I conducted a visit to Madagascar from 10-19 December 2012. During my visit, I found that factors such as extreme and chronic poverty, and discrimination based on caste that continues to prevail against the descendants of slaves, have led to malnutrition which has stunted their physical and mental development, early marriage, lack of education, unemployment and destitution. These deepening vulnerabilities have fueled an increase in contemporary forms of slavery such as, domestic servitude, (which affects children and Malagasy workers migrating abroad), child slavery in mines and quarries, bonded labor, and forced early marriages.

Chronic poverty can erode all forms of human rights. I found that children carried heavy loads as a result of their work in mines or quarries for example, which stunted growth and led to a great amount of physical pain. Because this work is often in remote areas of the country, and often illegal and informal, the communities in which these children live are often characterized by violence and lawlessness, thereby exposing them to drugs, alcohol, rape and prostitution. While the minimum age for marriage is 18 years for both boys and girls, they are often forced to marry as young as 10 years old, and in some cases girls marry men who are significantly older than them or elderly. This renders them vulnerable to domestic servitude, sexual slavery, and to violations of their right to health, education, and other rights. Due to persistent discrimination based on caste that exists against the descendants of slaves, these persons continue to be amongst the most vulnerable to slavery and discrimination. I urge the Government and other stakeholders to redouble their efforts on combating the poverty and chronic socio-economic situation in Madagascar that is robbing its present and future generations of their capacity to lead a healthy life in dignity, and in freedom from slavery.

Follow up workshops
Mr. President,
In addition to one-time country visits, I believe that it is important to maintain ongoing engagement with relevant Governments and other stakeholders, including through follow up visits, workshops and dialogue, in order to provide sustained support to domestic efforts and the implementation of recommendations. In this regard, I am grateful to the Governments of Brazil, Peru, Mauritania, and Ecuador, for the opportunity to take part in follow-up workshops which focused on the recommendation made during my respective country visits. I wish to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the excellent cooperation in relation to these workshops. I look forward to our continued cooperation and to liaising with them on the progress made on the national action plans developed as part of the follow up strategy. In this respect, I am planning a follow up visit to Mauritania in the near future, in order to support their current efforts on their national action plan, which I understand is at its last stages of validation.

Country visit requests and envisage visits
Mr. President, I am also grateful to the Government of Ghana for having accepted my request for a visit, which I will undertake in November 2013. I have made a number of other visit requests as well, including to Bangladesh, Nepal, Niger, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Mr. President,
As I look to the future, I see challenges –indeed I have enumerated many – but these are not insurmountable. They are increasingly met by progressive national legislation, good practices, and improved methodologies which allow us to better quantify and understand the problem. These will hopefully help us to address the human rights violations and situations which are both a cause and a consequence of contemporary forms of slavery. Six years into my term on this mandate however, I note that our progress in eradicating and raising awareness of the very real, very contemporary forms of slavery that persist globally is too slow. There is still too little implementation and too few follow-up and enforcement mechanisms established at the domestic level. Slavery is not a problem of the past. Comprehensive programs and actions, including at the regional level, are needed to address this problem, which violates human rights, affects economies, perpetuates organized crime and exploitation, and endangers the achievement of MDGs. A further recommendation would be to have this mandate report to the United Nations General Assembly in New York as well, in order to enable it to raise awareness and bring relevant issues to that forum on a regular basis.

I would like to express my hope that this Council, the State Representatives and others gathered here today, will endeavor to meet the challenges, seize the opportunities to expand good practices, and engage in partnerships that will indeed make slavery a thing of the past, of another era.

Thank you for your attention.

1. See : , Questions and answers on “The cost of coercion”, the 2009 ILO global report on forced labor, issued 22 May 2009.