Symposium: Contending with the Legal Status Quo: Why Evidence is Central to Anti-Slavery Action

23 October 2019
Research Innovation

Katarina Schwarz  | Rights Lab Associate Director and Assistant Professor of Antislavery Law and Policy, University of Nottingham

The prohibition against slavery is one of the few globally accepted and recognized norms of international law with universal application—that applies to every State irrespective of specific treaty commitments or political beliefs. While the language of human rights, recognition of refugees, and requirements for labour market regulation (among many other relevant issues) may be contested, slavery’s prohibition stands as a shared universal commitment. Virtually all of the 193 UN Member States have also made a series of explicit commitments to combat and eradicate slavery and related forms of exploitation. In principle, therefore, every State recognizes the absolute unacceptability of slavery, and is committed to eradicating it in all its forms. However, eradicating slavery in practice has never been a simple affair.

New evidence is already bringing the focus on the gaps between national law and its implementation into new light. The persistent impunity gap within States’ legal systems is undoubtedly a critical issue in the anti-slavery of both today and tomorrow. However, focus on this gap often overlooks the question of whether the necessary law has been set up, and presumes that slavery is already illegal in most (if not all) of the world’s countries. New global evidence proves otherwise.The Antislavery Legislation Database reveals that States’ efforts to domesticate their international anti-slavery obligations through national legislation are far from complete. In fact, almost half of all 193 UN Member States (47%) appear not to have legal provisions criminalizing slavery or the slave trade. Comprehensive review of global evidence displaces the assumption of universal illegality in this case, with important implications for anti-slavery action. Likewise, with regard to related practices such as forced labour, servitude and the four institutions and practices similar to slavery, States’ domestic implementation of their international obligations to prohibit and criminalize exploitative practices are far from universally satisfied. Focusing on the realities of the status quo (identified through robust research in line with the Special Rapporteur’s emphasis on a scientific approach), rather than dominant presumptions, has the potential to shift anti-slavery priorities in meaningful ways.

By creating a foundation of robust evidence, anti-slavery action can be tailored to the real operational context, rather than resting on presumptions. It also enables a more nuanced engagement with the impact of a wide variety of different factors on anti-slavery efforts. The complex realities of slavery make realizing global commitments to eradicate extreme forms of exploitation more difficult in practice than in principle. Slavery occurs at the intersections of an array of different factors—not all of which experience the same consensus in the international arena that the prohibition of slavery claims. Approaches to the regulation of labour markets and corporations, acceptance and affordance of rights to displaced and migrating persons, responses to climate change, and policies concerning other current and emerging trends identified in the Special Rapporteur’s thematic report underpin vulnerabilities to exploitation. Multiple Sustainable Development Goal challenges coalesce in many different combinations in the narratives of people who have experienced slavery and related exploitation.

Acknowledging the complexity of slavery, and its interrelatedness with a range of critical contemporary challenges, is now a common observation. The related suggestion that anti-slavery efforts ought to integrate various mechanisms and frameworks into a holistic agenda is a natural progression. Yet, the nature and contours of the various intersections and the way these might be addressed effectively remains to be settled. In short: the “what” has become clearer, but the specifics of the “how” remain opaque. This is particularly acute in contexts where legal mechanisms and approaches are discordant rather than harmonic. Balancing interests of different issues, including various SDG Targets as well as areas of policy concern, involves trade-offs as well as synergies. These tensions must be navigated in order to achieve a systematic anti-slavery agenda.

Evidence-based anti-slavery action is not only about looking forward to the anti-slavery of tomorrow, but also about questioning the foundations and presumptions of anti-slavery today.

The sheer scale of the challenge at hand requires that a scientific, evidence-driven approach be adopted across policy, programming and evaluation practice in anti-slavery. However, in many instances, the evidence base that would support scientific, systematic, strategic and sustainable anti-slavery is incomplete, and the methods required to determine “what works” at the scale needed are still under development. It is therefore the need for deep collaboration between data and evidence (i.e. research experts and the full range of anti-slavery actors) that sits at the heart of meaningful change in global anti-slavery towards achieving SDG Target 8.7.

The Walk Free Foundation’s global anti-slavery metrics, Delta 8.7’s progress towards robust evidence across a significant cross-section of States, and the Rights Lab’s development of new methods, databases and analysis tools to support systematic and scientifically robust action, and other large-scale efforts to build the global anti-slavery evidence base, are crucial for the evolution of anti-slavery. At times, these scientific efforts must return to the fundamental assumptions of the anti-slavery movement—providing a new perspective on past and present action, problems and gaps, as well as appropriate and effective responses and solutions. Evidence-based anti-slavery action is not only about looking forward to the anti-slavery of tomorrow, but also about questioning the foundations and presumptions of anti-slavery today.

This evidence-based approach should be conceptualized as encompassing not only the findings generated from traditional academic and research centres in isolation, but the knowledge, experiences, and critical insights of survivors, as well as survivor-informed and survivor-led scholarship. This is an issue of efficacy as well as ethics; without the leadership of those who have lived experience of slavery and related exploitation (as well as members of effected communities in the variety of different contexts in which anti-slavery efforts are conducted), the anti-slavery evidence-base and methodologies remain critically limited.

Evidence and action are not, at present, consistently intertwined. Gaps persist between data and research communities and anti-slavery practitioners and policymakers, inhibiting communication flows in all directions. A hugely significant development in this regard, has been the emergence of symbiotic, inter-institutional collaborations between policymakers, data specialists, NGOs and methods innovators that even move beyond the model of information exchange to the co-development of action agendas aimed at propelling anti-slavery to the next level. New units focused specifically on this communication function are an important bridge between these sometimes disperse communities, facilitating engagement, and use of research, as well as producing responsive research that meets the needs of the anti-slavery movement. The Rights Lab’s Modern Slavery Evidence Unit and the UKRI Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre are a significant step in this direction.

The obligation to combat slavery (in principle) is the subject of global consensus. The need for a systematic, scientific, strategic, sustainable, survivor-informed and smart approach is clearly articulated. How this is to be achieved is more ambiguous but can be determined through collaboration and scientific endeavour. To make anti-slavery more effective, and make slavery a tractable problem, the starting point should be robust conclusions drawn from rigorous study, informed and led by survivors and taken up as a matter of necessity.

Dr Katarina Schwarz is the Rights Lab Associate Director and Assistant Professor of Antislavery Law and Policy, University of Nottingham. Follow her on Twitter: @KLMSchwarz

This article has been prepared by Katarina Schwarz as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Delta 8.7 “Tomorrow’s Slavery” symposium. Read all the responses below:

Symposium: Tomorrow’s Slavery, Today


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