Outlawing slavery: international conventions and human rights legislation

Eleanor Roosevelt with Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt, former chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, holds a poster of the Declaration of Human rights. UN Photo

Although the Transatlantic slave trade was made illegal in the 19th century, it was acknowledged that many forms of slavery persisted, so new laws against 20th century slavery were needed.

Below is a timeline of the main pieces of international and regional legislation against slavery that have been adopted in the last 100 years. The actual wording of many of the conventions listed below can be found at Human Rights Education Associates.

Timeline of legislation against contemporary slavery

1926 League of Nations Slavery Convention

Obliged governments "to prevent and suppress the slave trade", and also recognised a need "to prevent forced labour from developing into conditions analogous to slavery".

1930 International Labour Organization (ILO) Forced Labour Convention

Defined forced labour as "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty" which has not been offered voluntarily.

1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 4)

States: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

1949 UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others

Seeks to prevent commercial sexual exploitation through prostitution.

1950 European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Council of Europe) (Article 4)

States: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude", and "No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour". It excludes "work required to be done in the ordinary course of detention".

1953 UN Protocol Amending the Slavery Convention signed at Geneva on 25 September 1926

Hands over the duties contained in the 1926 League of Nations Slavery Convention to the United Nations.

1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery

Defines and legislates against a number of practices and institutions that are considered similar to slavery, most notably bonded labour, serfdom, forced marriage, and the transfer of children for the purposes of exploitation.

1957 ILO Convention (No. 105) Concerning the Abolition of Forced Labour

Obliges governments to suppress "any form of forced or compulsory labour".

1969 Organization of American States (OAS) American Convention on Human Rights (Article 6: Freedom from Slavery)

States: "No one shall be subject to slavery or to involuntary servitude, which are prohibited in all their forms, as are the slave trade and traffic in women", and "No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour". Like the 1950 European Convention, it also excludes work in situations of detention.

1981 African Union (formerly Organization of African Unity, OAU) African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (Article 5)

States: "All forms of exploitation and degradation of man, particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited."

1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 34 and 35)

Protects children from all forms of sexual exploitation, including exploitation in prostitution and pornography, and prohibits the abduction, sale and trafficking of children.

1998 Rome Statute of the International Court

Established the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which has jurisdiction with respect to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of enslavement.

1999 ILO Convention (182) Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour

Addresses the difficulty in distinguishing between excessive and exploitative forms of child labour and identifies the "worst forms", such as slavery, debt bondage, forced labour, recruitment for armed forces, prostitution and drug trafficking.

2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (part of the 2000 UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime

Commits states to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, to protect and assist victims of trafficking and to promote co-operation among states in order to meet those objectives.

2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings

Aims at preventing and combating trafficking in human beings, while guaranteeing gender equality. Also aims at protecting and assisting victims and witnesses, to ensure effective investigation and prosecution, while promoting international cooperation against human trafficking.