Modern Slavery and State Responsibility

Modern Slavery and State Responsibility

I was delighted to comment on an important new report by Rosana Garciandia and Philippa Webb on State Responsibility for Modern Slavery at the UN on January 31.  Contemporary forms of slavery continue to be a major challenge in the 21st century. International law prohibits slavery, human trafficking and forced labour, and states are generally committed to eliminating these human rights abuses. However, according to the International Labour Organization, over 40 million people were in modern slavery on any given day in 2016.

Modern slavery has been an issue in a number of recent cases including Reyes v Al-Malki (UK Supreme Court), Hacienda Brasil Verde  (Inter-American Human Rights Court – with a case note in English), and Mani Koraou v. Republic of Niger (ECOWAS Community Court of Justice).  The problem of slavery was well known to the drafters of the Articles on State Responsibility, and it is frequently invoked in the commentaries, including as an example of a jus cogens and an erga omnes obligation.   The event drew attention to the fact that states are infrequently directly involved in acts of modern slavery, but very frequently indirectly implicated by turning a blind eye to employment agencies that use intimidation, retention of passports, and violence, or the toleration of corruption.  In this regard, it is also important to note that many conventions require states to prevent forms of slavery.  When that duty is not fulfilled, a state may incur responsibility if it does not adequately prevent certain private misconduct subject to a due diligence standard. Therefore, if a state has a duty to prevent slavery, it will have to exercise vigilance with regards to visa processing, wage rules, border inspections, enforcement of labor laws and laws on living conditions.

A video of the event is available on UN TV.

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