The 51st Session of the Human Rights Council
12 September – 7 October 2022
Item 3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to development
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Slavery
15th September 2022
By Rasika Gopalakrishnan / GICJ
On the 15th of September 2022, the 8th meeting of the 51st Regular Session of the Human Rights Council considered the report of Mr Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on the Contemporary Forms of Slavery (A/HRC/51/26), during an interactive dialogue on the same topic.
Mr Tomoya Obokata opened the interactive dialogue by discussing the findings of his report on contemporary forms of slavery. Specifically, he spoke about his observations during his visit to Sri Lanka and suggested various steps which actors could take to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030.
The Special Rapporteur highlighted the challenges that were faced by migrant workers who returned to Sri Lanka after going abroad – these included unequal wages, poor living conditions, sexual harassment, and a lack of social benefits. The Sri Lankan government has taken a few steps to address these issues, such as increasing the minimum age of employment, as well as creating a “child-free” labour zone. However, the rapporteur feels that the government could benefit from implementing international covenants and policies which seek to promote and protect the rights of vulnerable communities from forced labour.
The year 2022 marks over 70 years since slavery was officially declared an “illegal system of labor” by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the reality strays far from the law; several forms of forced labour continue to exist, albeit in a secretive manner. Although slavery as an institution is formally banned in many parts of the world, the legacy of slavery is still passed down to generations through other subtle forms such as institutionalized racism and discrimination. Forms of coercive labour continue to exist largely in developing countries that lack the awareness or regulatory mechanisms to put an end to these activities. Furthermore, practices such as forced labour and trafficking increase with an uptick in unemployment and/or poverty rates, contributing to a vicious cycle of exploitation. In most developing economies, workforce supply always exceeds the demand; therefore, countries find themselves “selling” workers to other countries in hope that the money earned from this labour flow better supports their own economy. It is clear that this issue is not an isolated one; it is embedded within the social, political, and economical processes of countries.
Mr. Tomoya Obokata, a Japanese scholar of international law and human rights, was appointed the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery in March 2020. Since then, he has spent a considerable amount of time investigating and researching instances of slavery that still persist across the world. For the purpose of analysis, the special rapporteur chose to focus on Sri Lanka’s economic labour force. Mr..Obokata has identified and populated a typology of the various forms of forced labour that exist worldwide; this list can be found in his 2022 report to the General Assembly (A/HRC/51/26). His report also contains a list of suggestions to various actors such as government officials, NGOs, private corporations, civil society organizations, for the purpose of combatting modern slavery.
Report of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery
Report A/HRC/51/26 on contemporary forms of slavery affecting ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities.
The Special Rapporteur begins his report by outlining the various legal frameworks related to the rights of minorities. These include the Slavery Convention, the ILO Convention No. 107, the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, and so on. These conventions are also supplemented by other well-known covenants such as the ICCPR, ICESCR, the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the African Charter on Human and People’s rights. Next, the report chronicles the main forms of contemporary slavery affecting minorities. Systematic discrimination based on descent or employment status is recognized as one of the most pressing issues. Those who live in a state of poverty or do not have access to education are further at risk of being forced into labour. Examples of populations in Yemen, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Kazakhstan, along with other countries are illustrated to better understand how each population is affected differently.
The report then goes on to talk about the main ways in which contemporary forms of slavery manifest themselves. These include practices such as chattel slavery, forced and bonded labour, child or forced marriage, domestic servitude, sexual slavery, and child labour. The rapporteur highlights that severe forms of forced labour have been occurring amongst Uighur Muslims from the Xinjiang region of China. Similarly, workers in parts of Latin America are forced to toil for almost 20 hours a day doing activities such as cattle-ranching, forestry, charcoal-production, coffee production, and so on. In the Amazon region, labourers are forced to engage in illegal activities such as deforestation and mining, thereby unwillingly contributing to the detriment of the environment.
Despite these issues, the report also outlines positive developments that have occurred in this field. Countries like Brazil and the United States have taken legislative action to address discrimination faced by minorities in the workplace. A few European countries have started offering education in languages other than English, thus making learning more accessible to minority communities. Countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have introduced initiatives to protect the rights of their migrant workers. Civil society organisations have played a monumental role in raising awareness about the importance of education in preventing forced labour. NGOs in Albania, Cambodia, Kenya, and parts of West Africa have seen an increase in school enrollments upon their efforts.
Several conclusions are reached, at the end of the report. It is recognized that slavery is not merely a thing of the past, and manifests itself in a variety of contemporary forms. The Special Rapporteur recommends the setting up of tribunals and claims courts to ensure increased judicial involvement in issues of forced labour. In order to put an end to all forms of such forced labour, it is necessary for various actors to come together to take action, be it legislative action, policy changes, or raising awareness amongst vulnerable communities. The Special Rapporteur concluded by putting forward a list of recommendations which may help actors take better decisions towards combatting contemporary slavery. For states, the SR recommends measures such as increasing legislative action, increasing access to education, encouraging trade unions, regularising the informal sector, providing fair employment opportunities, and so on. For academics, the SR recommends that research be conducted on the relationship between contemporary slavery and minority groups. For international and regional organizations, the SR recommends that they work collaboratively with states and academics to provide expertise and resources towards such issues of discrimination. Further, organisations can establish strong partnerships with victims of forced labour, thereby empowering these communities to take action against these injustices.
Interactive Dialogue on the Special Rapporteur Report
Geneva, 15 September 2022. At the 8th meeting of the 51st Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the Contemporary Forms of Slavery held an interactive dialogue regarding the state of modern slavery and forced labour affecting ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities.
The Special Rapporteur commenced the meeting by summarising the findings of his report. He described his recent visit to Sri Lanka where he documented various forms of discrimination amongst workers in the informal sector. Mr.Obokata also noted that such unequal treatment persisted across all sectors of the economy – government, private, formal, informal, and so on. He goes on to mention that various forms of bonded labour – labour that is undertaken to pay back one’s debt – is a common practice in parts of Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.
Mr.Obokata raised the prevalence of a gendered dimension to this issue; sectors such as domestic work, manufacturing, and manual scavenging were dominated by female labourers. Further, it was observed that women are often required to work twice as hard to receive the same salaries as their male counterparts, due to the patriarchal notions which exist in today’s societies. Women are also placed at the risk of being sexually harassed and mistreated at the workplace; there is a reluctance to report such issues due to the lack of suitable redressal mechanisms and/or the lack of confidence in such bureaucratic processes.
The Sri Lankan Ambassador thanked the Special Rapporteur for his efforts to study the economic landscape of Sri Lanka. The Ambassador observed that Sri Lanka has raised the minimum age of employment from 14 to 16, in line with the compulsory age of education (16 years). A list of “hazardous work” has been expanded to include over 70 occupations, thereby protecting children from entering such dangerous situations. The Sri Lankan government prides itself on being one of the first Asian countries to ratify Protocol 29 of the Forced Labour Convention of the ILO, and has further amended its penal code to increase the number of prosecutions around human trafficking cases. The Ambassador further stated that the government recognizes the specific challenges faced by women and endeavours to increase microfinancing opportunities for women who are currently burdened by their debt.
The European Union delegate began by praising the Special Rapporteur’s report for its comprehensive and thorough nature. The delegate stated that combating forced labour is a top priority for the EU, and had recently passed guidelines for businesses to address the risk of forced labour within their supply chains. The European Commission also adopted a legislative proposal banning products made with forced labour from the European market. The delegate concluded his statement by welcoming further suggestions on the role that businesses and trade organisations can play towards preventing forced labour practices.
The delegate from Cote d’Ivoire made a statement on behalf of the African group. The delegate began by raising concerns over the growing inequality and poverty gap in societies around the world, one of the main reasons for the persistence of modern-day slavery. The delegate also called on the member states to continue their efforts to support the alleviation of poverty as well as the enforcement of human rights.
The delegate from Norway made a statement on behalf of the Nordic and Baltic countries. She expressed her concern over the deep-rooted intersecting discrimination that minority groups face, that is often state-sponsored and institutionalized. However, taking note of the positive advancements, she requests the SR to further investigate the driving factors that have contributed to these positive steps in this field.
The delegate from Mauritania began by welcoming the Special Rapporteur for the visit he made to Mauritania in May 2021. The SR was informed about the progress that Mauritania had been making to abolish all contemporary forms of slavery. The government has also set up a ministerial high-level commission that focuses on combating trafficking as well as implementing the recommendations from the SR’s report. The delegate highlighted that Mauritania has further adopted national legislation which criminalizes and punishes slavery-related practices, apart from setting up courts for the purpose of increased prosecution. The delegate concluded by stating that economic and social programs have also been set up for victims of trafficking.
The delegate from Costa Rica welcomes the report on contemporary forms of slavery and emphasizes the need for a collaborative effort to address this issue. The government of Costa Rica believes that the prevalence of statistical data disaggregated along the lines of ethnicity, language, and religion would be very helpful in making positive policy changes. The delegate believes that such data could help ascertain the disproportionate effects of forced labour across all sections of class, race, gender, and so on. The delegate concludes by asking the Special Rapporteur for advice on how states can create safe spaces for minority groups to dialogue and be involved with decision-making processes themselves.
The delegate from Bahrain takes note of the report’s recommendations about the role of the state in protecting the rights of migrant workers. The government of Bahrain has adopted a number of policies and laws towards such protection, including a “flexible permit” which allows workers to live freely in the Kingdom of Bahrain without requiring a sponsor. The delegate also highlights that Bahrain has, for the fifth consecutive year, ranked within the top tier on the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons report, hence indicating its strong compliance with international trafficking laws. The delegate concludes by enquiring about the ways in which government entities can cooperate with each other to reduce instances of child labour.
Several NGOs and civil society organisations were also involved in the discussion. Representatives stated that around 160 million people between the age of 5 and 17 are engaged in child labour globally, and noted that global progress has stagnated due to this. Speakers urged member states to further explore the link between historical forms of slavery and its contemporary manifestations by collaborating with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Civil society organizations concluded their statements by joining the SR to call all member states to end child labour in line with Target 8.7 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
The Special Rapporteur concludes by thanking the delegates for their various perspectives and opinions on this issue of contemporary slavery. Mr.Obokata reiterates the need for a collaborative effort towards putting an end to forced labour and modern slavery. This effort must include not only member states but also the victims who are at risk of being exploited themselves, such that they may be granted the right to make decisions over their own lives. He raised the importance of using the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to help businesses monitor the welfare and well-being of their employees and workers. The Special Rapporteur concludes by applauding the numerous positive efforts that states have taken towards addressing the issue of forced labour, and requests that states accept his appeal to make individual visits to monitor the state of contemporary slavery in certain countries.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Center for Justice condemns all forms of contemporary slavery and forced labour affecting ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities around the world. These include practices such as chattel slavery, forced and bonded labour, child or forced marriage, domestic servitude, sexual slavery, and child labour. GICJ wholly supports the anti-slavery and anti-trafficking efforts of member states and calls on other actors to play a vital part in putting an end to such violent practices. Harmful practices such as debt bondage and unemployment could be addressed by offering affordable credit-lending mechanisms and creating more avenues for women to engage in vocational training. It is imperative that civil society play an important role in sensitising people on issues of forced labour, such that they may feel empowered to recognize and help themselves out of such work environments. GICJ also recognizes the gendered dimension of this issue and supports the implementation of specific schemes for protecting the rights of women and children. In some societies, since sex work is not considered a “dignified” profession, it is not considered legitimate work and hence is covered by the usual laws that govern labour. Therefore, GICJ urges states to expand the ambit of what is considered “legitimate work”, and wishes to accord equal if not more protection to those engaged in sex work. Further, GICJ urges businesses and private companies to promote the welfare and well-being of its workforce by guaranteeing a minimum wage, social security benefits, as well as a safe working environment amongst other things.
Slavery, Forced Labour, Human Trafficking, Sri Lanka, Migrant Workers, Justice, Human Rights, Geneva, Geneva4Justice, GICJ, Geneva International Center for Justice