Symposium: The Devil is in the Details: A New Legislation Database for Anti-Slavery Advocacy

21 May 2020
Research Innovation

Katharine Bryant  | Manager – Global Research, the Walk Free initiative of the Minderoo Foundation

Establishing effective legislative and policy responses to eradicate modern slavery and support the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7, requires a baseline understanding of existing responses. By understanding which countries have criminalized slavery, forced labour and human trafficking in line with various international obligations, we can move beyond measuring the existence of legislation to begin to assess its implementation. Eventually, we can then determine whether this legislation is effective.

This is why the Antislavery in Domestic Legislation database, developed by Dr Katarina Schwarz and Professor Jean Allain, is critical. By looking beyond de jure slavery to assessing de facto slavery, and by engaging directly with over 900 domestic statutes globally, the database identifies trends, strengths and weaknesses, gaps and recommendations for improvement.

It is a monumental task—at Walk Free for the past six years we have been collecting legislative and policy data for the government response assessment of the Global Slavery Index and, more recently, for the Measurement, Action, Freedom report. I can personally attest to the time and energy it takes to collect this type of information and analyse it.

The findings of the Antislavery in Domestic Legislation database are disheartening. To see that slavery has not been universally prohibited—while not too surprising for those of us working in this field—feels like a setback for the anti-slavery movement. How can we be so far from achieving what many would see as the first step in responding to modern slavery: the creation of domestic frameworks criminalizing these most extreme forms of exploitation?

This is not to dismiss the many efforts by those in the anti-trafficking and anti-slavery fields to support governments to develop effective legislation. Perhaps most encouragingly, we see that 185 countries have some provisions criminalizing trafficking. Likewise, 149 have articles criminalizing elements of forced labour, and 144 have criminalized slavery. That trafficking provisions exist almost universally is encouraging, and reflects the efforts of many over the past 20 years since the UN Trafficking Protocol was adopted. Further gaps remain—from our own research we know that only 50 countries have criminalized forced marriage, while we see in the database that only 13 countries have provisions on servitude.

This in itself is a call for action, but, as is often the case, the devil is in the detail. As Dr Schwarz and Professor Allain establish, while these provisions exist, they are often not in line with international obligations. This reveals the benefit of this type of database—it allows for the detailed analysis of these provisions to identify exactly where the gaps are, and more importantly, understand how we can support governments to close them.

Being able to identify where the criminalization of various forms of exploitation do not meet international obligations is critical to developing policy recommendations and projects to improve it. For example, we see gaps in trafficking legislation in certain regions, such as the omission of ‘means’ or the inclusion of penalties insufficient to deter traffickers. Providing this kind of information in the database will greatly help to inform the next steps—how do we strengthen this legislation? I am very pleased to read that the database will provide exactly this kind of analysis in the future. This will better inform evidence-based advocacy, which will be of great benefit to the anti-slavery field.

There is also an opportunity here for the anti-slavery community as a whole. There is an increasing number of efforts to assess governments—including Walk Free’s government response index—to hold them to account for their responses to modern slavery under SDG Target 8.7. We recognize the ongoing difficulties of holding governments accountable under the SDG monitoring system without indicators specifically measuring all forms of modern slavery. In 2019, we joined with various anti-slavery organisations to call for modern slavery indicators under SDG Target 8.7. Developing and tracking these indicators requires a certain level of data on prevalence of modern slavery which is not currently available. In the absence of these data and indicators, there is a need for researchers and practitioners to develop our own common measurement frameworks to hold governments to account.

It is very encouraging that the database provides an opportunity and framework to do just this: to come together to discuss indicators of effective legislation, and to begin to join efforts to strengthen these provisions and ensure their implementation. One critical next step is a convening of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking legislative and policy experts to agree to these standards. The database and the data that sits behind it will be important resources to inform how these standards should be developed.

I look forward to seeing the database evolve and being part of the conversation as we begin to dive into the detail. This is critical to our ongoing efforts to track the progress of governments towards SDG Target 8.7 and the eradication of modern slavery.

Katharine Bryant is Manager–Global Research at the Walk Free initiative of the Minderoo Foundation. Follow her on Twitter: @KatharineBryant

This article has been prepared by Katharine Bryant 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 “Antislavery in Domestic Legislation Database” symposium. Read all the responses below:


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