The right not to be held in slavery

The International Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery of 1926 defines slavery as ‘the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised’.  The Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery of 1956 expands the definition of slavery to include slavery-like practices such as debt bondage, serfdom, forced marriage and certain cases of child exploitation. Slavery is prohibited under international law and there are no exceptions to that prohibition.

Slave trade is one of the historical shames that our world will forever face. There are people who lived, and some still live, and they believe[d] that another race of people is inferior to theirs and therefore they felt/feel inclined to enslave this allegedly inferior race.

It happened before the colonization of Africa. It happened during the dominance of the Roman Empire. The Romans, at that time, felt most superior and everyone else who didn’t speak a language like theirs was “barbarian” and therefore by nature, a subject of the Romans. In the Americas where African slaves were shipped, it baffled them that someone’s skin could be dark, and therefore the dark-skinned were called Negroes/Niggers to whom no traits of humanity were attributed. Up to date, the American people still struggle with race.

We still have the issue of human trafficking, which is called modern-day slavery and it is thriving in countries where people live in poverty. We wrote about human trafficking and later noted the effort by the EALA to curb the vice.

And today in defending civic space, we note that it is every person’s right not to be a slave.

Article 8 of the Convention on Civil and Political Rights states that

  1. No one shall be held in slavery; slavery and the slave-trade in all their forms shall be prohibited.
  2. No one shall be held in servitude.
  3. No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour;

This article is re-stated in the Constitution of Kenya under article 30. It states thus:

  1. (1) A person shall not be held in slavery

(2) A person shall not be required to perform forced labour.

The same is provided for under Article 4 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights

It therefore goes without saying that one cannot talk about slavery without talking about forced labour, debt bondage, and human trafficking.

Forced labour

International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No 29 on the abolition of forced labour provides that:

“For the purposes of this Convention the term forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily

‘Work’ includes all kinds of work or service, not just physical work. Historically, and presently, people of all ages: men, women and children are forced to work in mining, construction, finishing, agriculture, forestry, hospitality, sex work, street begging, recruitment into the armed forces and other militia, and many other ventures.

Under the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the right not be held in servitude does not preclude imprisonment with hard labour as a punishment for a crime, or the performance of hard labour in pursuance of a sentence to punishment for a crime, in countries where it is legal to impose such punishment

Forced or compulsory labour does not include:

(i) Any work or service, imposed as punishment for a crime which is, normally required of a person who is under detention in consequence of a lawful order of a court, or of a person during conditional release from such detention;

 (ii) Any service of a military character and, in countries where conscientious objection is recognized, any national service required by law of conscientious objectors;

(iii) Any service exacted in cases of emergency or calamity threatening the life or well-being of the community;

(iv) Any work or service which forms part of normal civil obligations.

The right not to be held in slavery requires that a person must do work or perform a service only when he is doing it voluntarily. It must be done under no threat of punishment. As such, people must not do work under conditions where one attaches the right of ownership to the working person.

Debt bondage

Article 1 of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery defines debt bondage  as the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of their personal services, or those of a person under their control, as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined.

Freedom from slavery is related to the right to liberty under article 9 of the ICCPR, the right to privacy in article 17 of the ICCPR and the right to freedom of movement in article 12 of the ICCPR.

The right not to enslave anyone must be observed by all persons.

And that’s it for defending civic space today!


This article appears in our weekly digital law magazine, The Deuteronomy Vol 8, Issue 2 of November 11th, 2016

To receive The Deuteronomy in real time, click HERE.


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