Symposium: The Antislavery Legislation Database: Community, History and Practice

22 May 2020
Research Innovation

Luis C.deBaca  | Former US Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

One of the thorniest questions the modern antislavery movement has to confront in the international arena is whether and to what extent treaty language, reporting mechanisms and multilateral processes can move past being “talk shops” to actualized instruments on behalf of workers and other communities who have little access to them. The solutions-focused approach of Alliance 8.7, and especially the knowledge-advancing work of United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, are meaningful answers to that query. So too is the new undertaking recently unveiled by Professor Jean Allain and Dr Katarina Schwarz: The Antislavery in Domestic Legislation database.

Through this project, we are for the first time able to access in one place laws from all 193 UN Member States, whether constitutional, criminal or labour statutes. The laws are searchable against some of the varied terms used throughout the last one hundred years to describe the practices now loosely aggregated under the term “modern slavery” or “human trafficking”. At the heart of the project are some of the variouas international antislavery agreements that bracket the field.

As a practitioner, diplomat and academic working in the field of modern slavery, I am excited about the prospects of the Database, with a particular focus on: 1) how it can be used as a tool of community-building; 2) how it can place the modern movement in historical context at both international and domestic levels; and 3) how it can not only shine a light on inadvertent gaps in domestic legislative coverage but also help to detect evasion and corruption.


The newly launched legislative Database has a wide utility in the ongoing project of building the community of modern slavery practice to include diplomats, law enforcement and human trafficking specialists. In this way, it contributes to the much-needed further professionalization of the antislavery field.

This Database will substantially help remediate the “growing pains” of a movement that is unsure if it even has a shared history. The combination in recent years of the rights-based slavery approach and the commerce-based sex trafficking approach created a field with not just different actors and bureaucracies but with multiple origin stories and histories. This risks stakeholders’ talking past one another—or even contesting core meanings rather than buckling down to end modern slavery.

Through the use of this Database, which aggregates a number of different instruments, we can hopefully come to a better understanding not just of domestic legislation, but of how shortcomings in national laws and efforts might stem from the multiple sources of legal and social understandings (and misunderstandings) of the slavery and trafficking concepts.

History and Context

The University of Michigan’s Earl Lewis recently noted that study of the First (ancient) and Second (transatlantic) Slaveries requires us to examine the continued legacies and practices of compelled service: a Third Slavery in a time of official freedom that reaches from the post-Emancipation era to today. A unified slavery studies can reveal commonalities in methods of oppression and value extraction, as well as recurring patterns of social control and the economies and legal systems that rely on exploitation.

Indeed, for practitioners and policymakers, understanding slaveries across time and space can help us recognize and confront the troubling persistence of slavery-based legal and social regimes long after the slave system that gave them logic and life was abolished. Tools like the Database, that place ongoing responses in their historic and legal contexts, not only permit such understanding but also allow us to test national and global responses against the standards agreed upon by the international community over the last century.

I read the Database as suggesting that acceding to international instruments and passing (or too often, not passing) legislation is not the same thing as truly fighting slavery and as reminding us that we are not in Year Twenty of a modern antislavery movement, but in an ongoing struggle to curb exploitation that dates at least to the first abolitionist gatherings in 1787.


While the Palermo Protocol was intended to compensate for the gaps between the rights-based and commerce-based approaches, and the shortcomings of domestic legislation, it created a false emphasis on understanding trafficking primarily as a cross-border activity. The Database shows the ways in which the Palermo Protocol was enshrined in domestic legislation in the first decades of the 21st century and the resulting de-emphasis of domestic slavery prosecutions. Such a focus on cross-border movement opens up the potential to further ignore cases of enslavement occurring in a strictly domestic context.

As a professor teaching on the U.S. 13th Amendment and efforts of former slaveholders to re-exploit their emancipated victims, one of the legislative issues that intrigues me—and which the Database allows us to better examine—is the way in which carefully crafted domestic laws can allow for evasion of international human rights standards. Although the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, slave-like conditions persisted in the American South through the early 20th Century with the complicity of a judiciary that allowed for brazen defenses of de facto enslavement. If the instruments against which the Database collects national level statutes are to function as anything other than State virtue-signaling devices, they must be usable. The Database very helpfully points out these weaknesses in domestic legislation, removing the conceptual and legal gaps that at best allow for inadvertent ignoring of compelled service, and at worst create zones of impunity, policy evasion and rent seeking or corruption opportunities.


The Antislavery in Domestic Legislation Database is exciting for many reasons:

  • It provides the knowledge platform through which to identify and analyse national laws and to measure them against the international standards to which the countries have acceded. With use, the Database should enable us to assess further legislative or enforcement actions necessary not only to come into paper compliance with the various antislavery conventions, but to effectively fight the Third Slavery in all of its manifestations.
  • It will create an opportunity for development of conforming laws and cross-border law enforcement: through development of a common language for research and for extradition and mutual legal assistance treaties.
  • It will allow us to examine what instruments seem to have been taken up by countries, and for those which haven’t, to ask why and even perhaps to assess to what extent we should put energy behind keeping a moribund instrument “alive”. For instance, can small differences between concepts like Forced Labour and “Practices Similar to Slavery” be harnessed to create better tools, or would doing that simply create confusion, as a solution in search of a problem? Does such a concept confuse policymakers and enforcement officials? Does it represent the lived experiences of victims and survivors and their communities more effectively than other concepts such as Slavery or Forced Labour?
  • It pushes us in the multilateral and anti-trafficking communities to consider how to breathe new life into old concepts—or perhaps finally abandoning them entirely as a relic of the past. For those of us who are attorneys, the Database can help us to make the hard choices of abandoning similarly archaic legislative practices.
  • And, it will allow us to visualize the application of international treatments by individual countries, through cutting-edge infographics and a readily accessible mapping toolkit— foregrounding the countries to which particular diplomatic or advocacy attention should be paid.

These are only a few of the uses to which the Antislavery in Domestic Legislation Database will be put. The University of Nottingham Rights Lab and the University of Monash deserve congratulations for supporting this important work by Dr Katarina Schwarz and Professor Jean Allain. It will be exciting to see the novel and innovative uses, and the key insights in this ever-growing field.

Luis C.deBaca is the former US Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. He is Senior Fellow in Modern Slavery at the Gilder Lerhman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, of Yale University’s Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @AmbCdeBaca

This article has been prepared by Luis C.deBaca 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:

Symposium: The Antislavery in Domestic Legislation Database

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