“We must act now” – UN’s Special Rapporteur on Slavery

November 28, 2016

Urmila Bhoola, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of slavery, talks about her role, why the Forced Labour Protocol is so important, and what is being done to achieve Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.


In May 2014, The UN’s Human Rights Council appointed international human rights lawyer, Urmila Boola, as Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences. In her role she deals with issues concerning traditional slavery, forced labour, debt bondage, serfdom, children working in slavery or slavery-like conditions, domestic servitude, sexual slavery, and servile forms of marriage.

A former Judge of the Labour Court of South Africa, Bhoola took up her role after twenty years working as a labour and human rights lawyer – a career which has led to many awards for her human rights and gender equality work.

We sat down with the Special Rapporteur to find out more about what is being done to combat slavery.

The role of the Special Rapporteur

The mandate as Special Rapporteur, she explains, requires her to visit countries and report on whether they are complying with legal obligations to end slavery, as defined in international agreements.

urmila-shaking-handsMeeting with Ms Hadijatou Mani Korau who brought slavery case to ECOWAS court, Niger

“It is difficult not to become emotionally invested,” she says. “At the same time, you realize so much more needs to be done, but you know it all happens quite slowly. Whenever I feel at an impasse, I remember the hopelessness of the people I meet and become even more determined to make a positive change in their lives.”

The challenges

Asked about the challenges she faces in her role, Bhoola pointed to two main issues.

“A key challenge of a rapporteur is to understand how countries are trying to comply with international agreements and whether they have passed national laws that prohibit slavery. If countries already have laws in place, then it’s necessary to identify to what extent they are being enforced.

urmila-el-salvadorEl Salvador country visit – Meeting with coastal area workers

Another challenge is to ensure that the recommendations the rapporteur makes at the end of their country visits are practical and country-specific. The rapporteur provides feedback for changes in national policies and laws, and helps to identify areas for improvement such as their institutional framework and the allocation of resources.”

The Forced Labour Protocol

Soon after she took up her role, the International Labour Organization adopted the Forced Labour Protocol, a legally binding treaty that requires ratifying governments to take new measures tackling modern slavery in all its forms. To date, nine countries have ratified.

“The Forced Labour Protocol is critical because it complements the existing UN Conventions and provides a basis for addressing labour and sexual exploitation. It also addresses forced labour in global supply chains and for me that is a significant addition to the international law and policy framework, providing guidance to both governments and business on practical ways to address forced labour,” Bhoola says.

“However, it is not enough to simply ratify. States must also ensure effective and immediate implementation of obligations to prevent future abuse and exploitation, to protect victims and ensure that they have access to remedies, as well as to punish those who force people to work in conditions of slavery. Ratification comes with the duty to report on steps taken to implement.”

SDG Target 8.7

In 2015, world leaders adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals: 17 interrelated goals and 169 associated targets to guide global development.

In Target 8.7 leaders committed to taking ‘immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.’

It’s an ambitious goal but Bhoola believes it can be achieved with the recent launch of Alliance 8.7.

“Alliance 8.7 is a global partnership that leverages the resources, knowledge, skills and capacities of a whole range of stakeholders, including governments, businesses, workers, NGOs, and academics, in order to coordinate global, regional and national efforts to achieve Target 8.7.

For countries, ratification of the Forced Labour Protocol is a stepping stone to achieving the target. As more countries implement the Protocol and focus on decent work as a solution, I am confident that we can achieve Target 8.7.”

We can all help

With 21 million people trapped in forced labour worldwide, Bhoola stresses that everyone can play his or her role in finally bringing it to an end.

“It’s critical for people to understand that contemporary forms of slavery still exists in our society today. Everybody can learn what slavery is, how it manifests and the forms it takes. Often, the people who are affected by slavery are hidden, invisible to society, and work in places in the informal sector that are hard to identify. If we become more vigilant about the forms of exploitation that exist, we can be more aware and take action.

As consumers, we can help to ensure that the goods and services we buy are produced in circumstances where there is no exploitation or extreme forms of exploitation that result in slavery.

Ending slavery depends on what we do.”

Urmila Bhoola is a panelist at a high-level event ‘Revealing the Child Faces of Modern Slavery’, to mark the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December, organized by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The event takes place at UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.