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16 September 2016

Special Rapporteur prompts UN member states into action on debt bondage

International Advocacy Manager Kate Willingham on yesterday's session of the UN's Human Rights Council and the importance of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

Human Rights Council session in Geneva
Plenary session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva

Yesterday the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Urmila Bhoola, reported to the UN Human Rights Council on her work to eradicate slavery over the past year. The report included accounts of her country visits to El Salvador and Nigeria, as well as a thematic study on debt bondage, which was to us of particular importance.

The UN Human Rights Council is the UN’s main body responsible for addressing human rights violations. The Special Rapporteur’s report is a crucial opportunity to get slavery high up onto the agenda of the UN and of its member states. This is particularly important with an issue like debt bondage, which is perhaps a lesser known form of slavery, but is all too prevalent. Indeed, debt bondage is probably the most widespread mechanism of enslaving people today.

The Special Rapporteur’s report is extremely strong. It documents the global reach of debt bondage, occurring across countries, continents and various sectors of the economy. Looking at its root causes, it highlights the disproportionate impact on minority groups, indigenous people, people considered of low caste status, women, children, and migrant workers. It shines a spotlight on the role of poverty, discrimination, social exclusion, lack of decent work, barriers to education and precarious labour migration. It also points out the failure by many governments to implement effective legislation on debt bondage; deficiencies in the areas of identification, release, rehabilitation and prosecution; a lack of data; and weak rule of law.

The analysis show how complex an issue modern slavery is and how multi-layered response is needed from the international community, but the recommendations for action represent a clear and comprehensive framework to eradicate debt bondage and protect those affected.

Anti-Slavery International has worked closely with the Special Rapporteur throughout the year and on this report. We submitted a great deal of information from our programmes and partners in the field, including evidence on bonded labour in India and Nepal; on global trends such as the use of debt bondage as a means to forced labour of migrant workers; our analysis on the root causes of bonded labour; and also key recommendations on action by states and the international community to tackle debt bondage. We were delighted to hear this contribution acknowledged by the Special Rapporteur in her presentation yesterday, and to see the issues raised reflected throughout the report itself.
In the discussion with member states that followed there was great deal of interest in the Special Rapporteur’s thematic study, and commitments by governments to implement recommendations. This shows just how valuable the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and work is in driving forward positive changes by governments that we hope will lead to real change in practice for those affected by slavery.

We were also one of very few organisations who had the opportunity to deliver a statement to the Human Rights Council, welcoming the Special Rapporteur’s report and highlighting key findings and recommendations from our own work.

It was also a great opportunity for us to call on all member states to support the resolution presented by the UK Government to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Slavery for a further three year term. The Special Rapporteur on Slavery mandate has been so instrumental in raising the profile of slavery at the UN and amongst the international community, and getting governments to take action.

We hope to see a strong show of support by governments in renewing the mandate, and look forward to working with the Special Rapporteur on future reports and country visits.


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