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Thank You, UN, for Protecting Victims of Slavery and Other Cruel Practices


Mauritanian rights defenders calling on stricter enforcement of their country’s antislavery laws, 2011. The country is an outlier in the West African region in its continuing existence of enslavement of women and girls. 

While slavery and inhumane practices have still not been eradicated, the United Nations has done much to expose them and to help stamp them out. Its efforts continue.

Early after its establishment, the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights carried out a study on slavery. Its findings were riveting, and it made several policy recommendations to help eliminate and prevent this dastardly phenomenon. This article is the fifth in a series using material from UN archives explaining the world body’s work on protecting and promoting human rights.

In the 1970s, the Sub-Commission set up a Working Group on Slavery and Slavery-Like Practices, which met for five days a year. Nongovernmental organizations like the Anti-Slavery Society brought their concerns before it. All manner of horrors were exposed in hearings in this group and brought to the attention of the world: slavery, forced labor, debt bondage, child labor, sexual exploitation of children and female genital mutilation.

Col. Patrick Montgomery of the Anti-Slavery Society was an eloquent voice pleading for justice for the victims. Halima Warzazi, a member of the Sub-Commission, wrote a pioneering study on female genital mutilation, which helped to bring this searing problem the attention it needed. These combined efforts helped place the international spotlight on the problem for the first time.

Evidence submitted to the Working Group exposed the existence of some one million slaves in Mauritania. That was the start of a concerted international attempt to eradicate this scourge from the country, an effort that is still continuing.

Problems of debt bondage and child labor affecting millions of human beings were exposed, particularly in Asia, and the UN human-rights machinery pitted itself against the task of exposing these practices and calling for their eradication. This effort is continuing as well.

The Human Rights Council continues to rely on a special rapporteur, or fact-finder, to track the problem of sexual exploitation of children. The rapporteur produces an annual report documenting these horrendous practices and offering recommendations for their elimination.

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In 2004, as the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, I made a stirring plea and led a concerted effort to establish the office of a special rapporteur on human trafficking, especially focused on women and children. This rapporteur also produces an annual report into this growing phenomenon.

A UN special rapporteur on violence against women has pioneered the international work exposing the many forms of violence and abuses to which women are subjected, and it has contributed to the UN campaign for justice for women.

There are several notable aspects about the UN’s goals to protect victims of inhumane treatment. First, it was in the UN human-rights bodies, such as the Commission on Human Rights, its Sub-Commission, the Commission on the Status of Women and bodies like the Working Group on Slavery and Slavery-Like Practices that these phenomenons were aired and exposed, spurring international campaigns to begin to root them out.

Second, the UN carried out study after study analyzing the problems and providing policy recommendations. Third, the UN sent experts to the field to discuss with governments ways to wipe out such cruel practices. One was undertaken by a Belgian human-rights expert, Marc Bossuyt, who made a series of visits to Mauritania to encourage the government to acknowledge the problem of widespread slavery in the country and to take action to end it.

Fourth, the UN continues to carry out fact-finding missions to expose the persistence of these practices and to monitor the efforts of governments to stamp them out.

The Working Group on Slavery and Slavery-Like Practices was succeeded in 2007 by a special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery.


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