Skip to main content

Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

International Day for the Abolition of SlaveryBreaking the Chains: Eradicating Slavery through SDGs

28 November 2019

Expert Panel organized by the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

28 November 2019

Ambassador Wilde, Distinguished panellists,Excellencies, Colleagues and Friends,

We are here to mark the international day to abolish slavery. I begin by reminding everyone that slavery is not just an abomination of the past. People are enslaved, today, in every region of the world – perhaps even every country in the world. The ILO estimates that more than 40 million women, men and children are enslaved: that's more than 5 in every thousand people. Furthermore, one-quarter of the survivors who have escaped modern slavery are children, according to recent research. Almost three-quarters of the survivors are women and girls.

Women and girls are forced into sexual slavery or unpaid domestic labour. They endure forced labour and other forms of extreme exploitation in often extremely hazardous conditions – producing items that may well be destined for our kitchens and homes. Entire families are enslaved in debt bondage, perhaps for generations, working in fields and mines. They are trafficked. Children are forcibly recruited for use in armed conflict: the boys as human mine-detectors, or as fighters; the girls, frequently, as sexual objects for soldiers' use.

Enslavement is among the gravest and most comprehensive violations of human dignity. Its prohibition is absolute and, under certain circumstances, it may amount to a crime against humanity. The continued enslavement of millions of people is therefore an indictment of all our societies. Those who have survived this harrowing experience need assistance to recover and play a meaningful role in society – and providing that help is the goal of the UN Voluntary Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, or Slavery Fund.

With Target 8.7 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, all States have promised "immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking, and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour" before 2030. The Agenda rightly approaches eradicating contemporary forms of slavery as an integral part of the broader struggle to combat poverty, underdevelopment and gender inequality, and to achieve human rights-based development. It provides a framework for all stakeholders – including survivors of slavery – to build alliances and to address root causes.

And its powerful and universal commitments come with a timeline: we have ten years to achieve these goals.


Structural discrimination is almost always a factor in contemporary slavery. The victims, including children, have frequently been rendered vulnerable to enslavement by years – and perhaps generations – of multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, and failures by States to protect them. This may be based on gender, poverty, ethnicity, religion, indigenous status, perceived caste status and being of slave descent. It is essential that all States take action to end these deeply harmful forms of discrimination, which constitute fundamental violations of human rights and put people at risk of exploitation and harm.

By promoting development that is sustainable because it is truly inclusive, and by placing those furthest behind at the core of development work, the 2030 Agenda constitutes an unprecedented road-guide of action and resources to end discrimination; address the drivers of socio-economic misery; and stem root causes that increase people's vulnerability to enslavement.

Conflict, violations of international humanitarian law and failures to ensure legal and physical protections for migrants constitute another set of structural factors that underpin the persistence of slavery. A study this year by the International Organisation for Migration and Alliance 8.7 found that migrants, including refugees, are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking and enslavement when fleeing situations of violence and conflict, where the State has effectively broken down. Monitoring teams from my Office have repeatedly received information from migrants – many of them children – who have been held captive in inhuman and degrading conditions in such contexts, as well as during their journeys.

This points to an urgent need to address the risk of contemporary slavery in the context of humanitarian action in conflict and crisis situations, and I note that this year, of the 29 projects being supported by the Slavery Fund, 11 operate in humanitarian settings.

The Slavery Fund also supports projects that fight slavery in business supply chains, from the extraction or production of raw materials, to manufacturing and distribution. This includes supporting worker-led initiatives and ensuring the meaningful participation of workers, to address the harms inflicted on victims of child labour and forced labour.

The survivors of enslavement should be at the centre of action to end slavery, as leaders and interlocutors. No other stakeholders have the same insight into both the impact and the root causes of these practices. I am moved by their stories – people like one young girl, whose name I will not disclose, who from age 10 was subjected to several forms of slavery, including forced labour and forced prostitution. Identified by an NGO supported by the Slavery Fund, this child was given shelter, medical and psychological assistance, including for HIV and psychological trauma. Today she is 13; her health has improved; and she is attending school.

Since 1991, the Slavery Fund has awarded more than $4 million dollars to 450 organizations in 95 countries. But needs are much greater: the Board estimates that the Slavery Fund requires $2 million in voluntary contributions every year to adequately fulfil its mandate -- and even this would ensure support for only a fraction of the estimated 40 million victims. We have raised just $600,000 for the Fund's work in 2020. We need far more support from Member States.


Modern-day slavery is an affront to human rights, to human equality, and to every principle on which the UN stands. The 2030 Agenda is a powerful opportunity to greatly accelerate the efforts being made worldwide to eradicate contemporary slavery, and I welcome the multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as Alliance 8.7, that have sprung up to galvanize support and resources for SDG Target 8.7.

We need to move strongly forward to put an end to all forms of slavery and slave-like practises. We have promised to achieve this in just ten years – and it is time, well past time, to fulfil that promise.

Thank you.