If Theresa May wants to tackle slavery, we must stay in the ECHR

Slavery is transnational - the fight against it must be too


If we cast our eyes about the world we can clearly see that in the 21st century the question of international rule of law becomes an increasingly vital issue in the struggle against slavery.

With globalisation the capacity of states to regulate business, as envisioned by classical economics, is progressively limited because too few states recognise that this responsibility now requires extraterritorial legislation.

This is meant to ensure the legal accountability of transnational corporations and of individual business executives who are running those corporations.

Such legislation is also a central requirement in the struggle against contemporary slavery, particularly as businesses extend their operations into countries with limited rule of law and high levels of corruption.

Rule of law 

But this question of international rule of law also touches much more directly on governments themselves and how they comport themselves, not just how they regulate international business.

I was assured in a recent meeting with some Conservative parliamentarians that their commitment to the European Court of Human Rights is absolute.

This was a relief after reports in the Daily Telegraph over Christmas and the New Year suggesting Theresa May wished to withdraw from the Court.

This sent shivers down my spine, and it should have done for anyone concerned with human rights and in particular, with slavery.

Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is administered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), recognises slavery as a human rights abuse. Cases presented to the ECtHR on this subject include ones against France, Cyprus and Russia, as well as the United Kingdom.

See you in court

This 2012 case (C.N. v the United Kingdom) concerned allegations of domestic servitude by a Ugandan woman who complained that she had been forced into working as a live-in carer.

The Court held that there had been a violation of the Convention, finding that that the legislative provisions in force in the UK at the relevant time had been

“inadequate to afford practical and effective protection against treatment contrary to Article 4 [prohibiting slavery and forced labour]”.

Each of these judgements advanced the protections of people at risk of slavery across Europe. They deepened our collective understanding of the manifestations of modern slavery and how it should be combated, and compelled unaware or unwilling governments to act to uphold their responsibilities to protect human rights.

Global response

While there is much lovely rhetoric from political leaders against slavery, these statements can sometimes belie the fact that slavery frequently occurs because of acts or omissions, by governments that provide the opportunities for unscrupulous individuals to exploit the vulnerable.

Hence, obtaining adequate and enforceable human rights protections in national and international law and holding governments to account on these protections, is an essential element in the struggle against slavery.

Where such rule of law protections are absent then the ground is all the more fertile for slavery to flourish.

The Court of the Economic Community of West African States demonstrated this in 2008 when a case that my organisation, Anti-Slavery, helped bring on behalf of a young woman called Hajiatou Mani resulted in a court judgement against the state of Niger for failing to protect its citizens from slavery.

The effect of that judgement was not just compensation for Hajiatou but also the self-liberation of thousands more enslaved people across West Africa who were made aware of their rights by the judgement.

Green light for abuse

Were the UK to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights, it would represent a repudiation by this country of the ideals of international rule of law the UK was instrumental in establishing after the Second World War, which insist that states cannot simply do as they please.

Instead they must be held to account by some internationally agreed standards, particularly in relation to human rights, which are the most basic acceptable standards of treating our fellow human beings.

Why, in future, should a state like France or Cyprus or Niger allow itself to be held accountable by an international court on slavery or other human rights issues if the UK has asserted so starkly that it is believes itself to be above such things?

In other words, Prime Minister May can either be a world leader against slavery, or she could be the leader who withdraws her country from the European Court of Human Rights. She cannot be both.

Aidan McQuade is the director of Anti-Slavery International. He writes in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @the_mcquade

See: Theresa May talks tough on slavery – but the law is failing victims

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One Response to “If Theresa May wants to tackle slavery, we must stay in the ECHR”

  1. NHSGP

    1. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.

    2. No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

    3. For the purpose of this Article the term ‘forced or compulsory labour’ shall not include:

    any work required to be done in the ordinary course of detention imposed according to the provisions of Article 5 of this Convention or during conditional release from such detention
    any service of a military character or, in case of conscientious
    objectors in countries where they are recognised, service exacted instead of compulsory military service
    any service exacted in case of an emergency or calamity threatening the life or well-being of the community, or
    any work or service which forms part of normal civic obligations.


    If you want to address slavery and send a message, then revoke the exceptions that allow the state to treat people as slaves.

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