Human rights must be upheld in times of conflict

As conflicts rage around the world, we look at two of the gravest situations – Gaza, where the daily horrors have been visible to the world, and Sudan, where the media spotlight has failed to focus. Our Advocacy and Programmes Team colleagues explain why human rights – and measures to prevent slavery – must be upheld in times of conflict. As we push for a world where everyone lives in freedom, we cannot allow crucial international human rights and humanitarian standards to be disregarded.

Conflict and slavery are heavily linked and cause a huge amount of harm to people. Beyond the horror and suffering arising from the violence itself, conflict and instability are known drivers of slavery. When law and order break down at the same time as fundamental services collapse and basic necessities, such as food and water, are restricted, people are much more at risk of being exploited with impunity. As people become increasingly desperate, they may try to flee. This, in turn, makes them vulnerable to traffickers seeking to take advantage of their desperation. We know that conflicts lead to rises in forced marriage, child soldiers, sexual slavery, and many other forms of egregious exploitation around the world.

Much more needs to be done to protect both people fleeing war zones and those who have no choice but to remain. But in both Sudan and Gaza, the failure of leaders to urgently call for and negotiate a ceasefire and ensure access to humanitarian aid – with perpetrators in both cases blocking crucial aid – has threatened human rights. These conflicts are both exacerbating existing forms of slavery and creating a higher risk of contemporary forms of slavery for surviving civilians. The continual disregard for international human rights by perpetrators is not only causing great harm in the present but will likely cause irreparable harm to our ability to fight slavery-like practices in the future.

Human trafficking, forced labour, and forced marriage in the Sudan conflict

Conflict broke out in Sudan in April 2023 due to the ongoing power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces. Prior to the conflict, the people of Sudan were already in severe humanitarian need. Sudan is also heavily impacted by climate change and is experiencing floods and droughts, which have significantly exacerbated insecurity and precariousness for people. The war has escalated this crisis. As of April 2024, more than a year since the fighting broke out, it is estimated that over 15,000 people have been directly killed and a further 30,000 injured as a direct result of the war. The International Rescue Committee has raised the alarm that 25 million people are in desperate need, including 8 million people who have been forced to flee their homes. This makes it the world’s largest displacement of people and a critical risk for upholding human rights.

Human rights experts have already raised alarms about the extraordinarily high risk of human trafficking in Sudan in the context of the conflict. In March 2024, UN experts reported that there is evidence of human trafficking – particularly of women and girls – for the purposes of sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, and child and forced marriage. This included internally displaced women and girls who had been forced to flee their homes. Boys, too, have been trafficked and forced to participate in the war. The same UN experts also noted the recruitment of children by armed groups for combat or any form of exploitation is a gross violation of international humanitarian law.

Enormous risks of human trafficking and slavery in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

With a long history of conflict, the people of Palestine were already at risk of forced labour, human trafficking and other forms of slavery prior to 2024. For example, the US Trafficking in Persons Department reported in 2023 that human traffickers had exploited Palestinian victims, including women, girls, LGBTQI+ individuals and children, in the West Bank, Gaza and/or Israel.

The sustained and aggressive violence being perpetrated in Gaza by the State of Israel – which has been assessed as risking irreparable harm to the Palestinian right to be protected from genocide by the International Court of Justice – will have exponentially increased these risks. People in Gaza have been living under intense bombardment and have experienced displacement multiple times, and the UN has continued to warn of the risks of famine. This is set against a dramatic loss of livelihoods since the conflict began, as neighbourhoods and businesses are destroyed and job losses soar. Recent reports also indicate that travel agencies are charging over $5000 (almost £4000) to escape Gaza via the Rafah border crossing, a cost that will place people at even higher risk of harm.

Slavery often occurs when people in desperate need are forced to resort to risky decisions to provide for their families or, in the case of war, protect themselves and their families. Debt bondage – when people are tied to their debt and forced to work to pay it off – is one of the most common ways of exploiting human trafficking victims. Combined, these factors must send a huge warning signal to the global community about the risks of human trafficking and slavery as a result of the ongoing aggression in Gaza

International human rights are our foundation

Slavery is prohibited under international law, including under international humanitarian law, where it can amount to a war crime. Yet, we are now seeing these core human rights foundations crack. We see this in the disregard shown for the international human rights framework by the State of Israel and many supportive governments. This is demonstrated in their disregard of countless calls from international bodies and experts – including the United Nations and the International Court of Justice – to bring about a ceasefire, ensure the flow of critical humanitarian aid, and end and repair the crimes being committed under international law. There is also evidence that Israeli operatives have attempted to undermine, influence and threaten the International Criminal Court (ICC). In Sudan, there are reports of crucial aid being blocked, and United Nations calls for a ceasefire have been ignored.

When state actors ignore international human rights frameworks and the agreed consensus on basic rights, they weaken all human rights protections and the systems established to promote and protect them. We cannot allow this precedent to be set. This affects everyone and will have long-term implications for our ability to uphold human rights globally.

What do we need to see?

We urge all parties to the conflicts in Gaza and Sudan to heed UN calls and their obligations under human rights and humanitarian law by ceasing hostilities immediately and ensuring the free flow of humanitarian aid. We call upon all powers involved, and the international community as a whole, to ensure the full protection of civilian human rights during and outside of conflict. This must include all measures – by governments and humanitarian actors – to protect conflict survivors from human trafficking and slavery as part of their much-needed crisis responses.

If you’d like to learn more, we would recommend reading UN resources on both Sudan and Gaza.

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