Symposium: Filling the Knowledge Gaps: The Antislavery Legislation Database

20 May 2020
Research Innovation

Tomoya Obokata  | United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences

The new Antislavery in Domestic Legislation database developed by Dr Katarina Schwarz and Professor Jean Allain (hereinafter “authors”) is timely and important in a number of respects.  First, it contributes to the advancement of knowledge in the field. Despite the fact that slavery has been abolished in law, the authors point to the fact that de facto slavery still exists, and States must do more than abolishing it. In this regard, the authors suggest that UN Member States must have sufficient legislative frameworks in place to prevent people from enslaving others as mandated by international standards including the 1926 Slavery Convention, 1956 Supplementary Convention, 1930 Forced Labour Convention as well as other human rights instruments. It is here that the Legislative Database plays an important role as it allows interested individuals and entities to access over 900 legislative frameworks on slavery and slave-like practices of all UN Member States. This will allow them to conduct thorough research and to deepen their understanding of how slavery and slave-like practices are regulated across the globe. The Database is the first of its kind in the field, and there is no doubt it will contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

Through their research, the authors conclude that there is still a long way to go as many States have not adequately prohibited these practices, thereby falling short of international standards. Divergence in State practice indicates that defining or framing offences for slavery and slavery-like practices is influenced by political, social, economic and cultural factors in each State. This, in turn, highlights the need to tackle the deep-rooted underlining causes which make such practices possible.

Second, as the authors suggest, the Database can strengthen antislavery action and advocacy. A closer analysis of legislative frameworks will allow antislavery advocates to identify good practices which can and should be widely shared and followed by States at the national level. When there are areas of concern—which may include the definitions of various acts of slavery and slave-like practices and the punishment regimes—these advocates can offer practical recommendations for improvements. In other words, the Database will serve as an important starting point, facilitating constructive dialogue between States and other relevant stakeholders in the field.

The authors undoubtedly have contributed to filling knowledge gaps in relation to legislative provisions on prohibition of slavery and slave-like practices. Still, there are a few issues which they may consider developing further in the future in order to complement their important work. Given the sophisticated and dangerous nature of human trafficking, slavery, forced labour and slave-like practices, proactive—as opposed to reactive—intelligence-led law enforcement is desirable. Measures such as surveillance, interception of communication and others are encouraged by the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime 2000 (UNTOC) and other instruments, and the need for these has also been acknowledged by human rights bodies, including the European Court of Human Rights. The authors could look at legislative provisions governing these tools, and analyse them in order to identify good practice as well as gaps—including an analysis of their conformity with the existing human rights norms and principles.

In addition, the examination of the punishment regimes—imprisonment or other measures—could be expanded further as important questions still remain. For instance, have States imposed adequate penalties to maximize the deterrent effects?  Are there any discrepancies in punishment regimes internationally? If so, what could explain them? Do statutory provisions also recognize aggravating/mitigating factors, and how do they enhance or undermine effective prohibition of slavery and slave-like practices? These questions, among others, could be explored in depth.

A related issue to punishment is asset recovery or confiscation of criminal proceeds. One of the effective ways to prevent and suppress human trafficking, slavery, forced labour, and other slave-like practices is to take illegal profits away from those who engage in these practices, particularly criminal entities such as organized criminal groups and terrorists. These entities rely on money laundering and other risk-averting strategies, such as violence/intimidation and corruption, in order to evade law enforcement and maximize their illegal profits. There is therefore a need to examine the extent to which States facilitate effective confiscation of criminal proceeds, including action against money laundering.

In addition, the transnational nature of these crimes will require all States to cooperate with each other in prosecuting and punishing human trafficking, slavery, force labour and other slave-like practices. In this regard, the Database could be expanded to incorporate provisions relating to international criminal justice cooperation which may include, but not limited to, cross-border investigation, exchange of intelligence evidence, extradition and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters. Once again, these are stipulated under UNTOC and regional instruments on criminal justice cooperation. The authors can fill knowledge gaps as to whether States have adequate legislative provisions to facilitate cooperation with others, bearing in mind the relevant human rights norms and principles.

I would like to congratulate Dr Schwarz and Professor Allain for their leadership in developing this important Database, and I hope that it will be used widely by all relevant governmental, civil society, academic and private sector stakeholders in order to facilitate more effective action against these evils of the contemporary world.

Dr Tomoya Obokata is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences. Follow him on Twitter: @TomObokata

This article has been prepared by Tomoya Obokata 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.

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