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Slavery and the United Nations

December 21, 2015

Last Wednesday the UN Security Council held its first ever debate on human trafficking and modern slavery. This is a genuinely important development for the anti-slavery movement.

The debate focussed on the connection with armed conflict. I was one of two external presenters asked to brief the Council. The other was Nadia Taha, a Yazidi survivor of enslavement by ISIS.

Nadia gave a wrenching account of the abuses she suffered at the hands of ISIS, declaring “The Islamic State didn’t come to kill the women and girls, but to use us as spoils of war, as objects to be sold with little or to be gifted for free”. She then detailed some of the horrors she has endured, including the enslavement of her sisters and execution of six of her brothers. It was a devastating and deeply moving presentation. You can read Nadia’s account here.

In my testimony I highlighted the strong connection between conflict and slavery. I called for the Security Council to label widespread and systematic human trafficking by armed groups as a crime against humanity, appoint a Special Envoy to better organise and focus UN efforts, and support supply chain transparency efforts. You can find my remarks here.

The outcome of the debate was a Presidential Statement. In UN terms, this signals quite remarkable progress. Among other things, the statement calls for the UN Secretary General to report back to the Security Council in 12 months on progress in achieving measures outlined in the statement. This is important, because it means that the issue remains firmly on the agenda of the Council, and hence provides the opportunity for further high level engagement.

The Freedom Fund can be proud of its contribution to this progress. We set out eighteen months ago to raise the profile of modern slavery at the UN and at the International Criminal Court – when this issue was not receiving much high level attention from either institution. These efforts culminated with the publication with the UN University on 2 December of two reports: Unshackling Development – Why we need a global partnership to end modern slavery and Fighting modern slavery – What role for international criminal justice?. We launched these at a well attended event at the UN, and also pushed their key recommendations to UN and member state officials with opinion pieces here and here.

In addition to UN Security Council engagement, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has publicly responded to our report, pledging the commitment of the ICC to “highlight the severity of such crimes… and hold the perpetrators accountable”.

The other big development this month was the launch of Ending Impunity, Security Justice – Using strategic litigation to combat modern-day slavery and human trafficking – a report on strategic litigation as a tool against slavery, prepared with the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center. We believe that strategic litigation can be a catalyst for genuine, long-term change. It offers a powerful means to hold both states and private actors accountable for gross human rights violations. It can allow victims to obtain compensation, force government action, drive legal reform, punish perpetrators, and compel action by businesses to end or prevent abuses. We will be working with HT Pro Bono Legal Center to advance this agenda in 2016.

It’s been a big year for the anti-slavery movement, and there is real momentum in the fight against this crime. That is to celebrated. But there remains so much more to be done. And as I write this, I can’t help but think of Nadia, and her courage, and the pain and the trauma she lives with, with thousands of other Yazidi girls and women remaining enslaved. Sometimes our successes seem so very inadequate relative to the scale of the problem.

Image: UN Security Council debate on human trafficking in situations of conflict

Written by
Nick Grono