Statement by Michelle Bachelet,UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
2 December 2020
Greetings to all of you, on this important occasion.
Every year, on this day, we commemorate the abolition of slavery and renew our pledge to eradicate it. We reaffirm the world’s commitment to free the more than 40 million women, men and children estimated to be living in slavery today.
Never has this pledge been more vital than it is today. As it continues to gather force, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unleash new waves of poverty and inequalities, making millions more people vulnerable to modern slavery.
Although owning someone has been abolished in law, the exercise of de facto powers of ownership over other human beings, by violence, deceit or other means, persists across the world.
People are still born into slavery because their parents and ancestors were enslaved. People continue to be treated as property. Others may be bound by custom or law to work as serfs or bonded labourers, for little or no pay. Around 25 million people worldwide are trapped in forced labour – many of them, in the sex trade.
One in four victims of contemporary slavery is a child – forced to participate in armed conflict, work in mines, homes or on the street, or trafficked and sold for commercial sexual exploitation and images of child abuse.
Women are most vulnerable to sexual slavery and domestic servitude. Some 15 million girls and women are living today in a marriage to which they did not consent. Practices such as the sale of wives and widow inheritance – the forcible marriage of widows to members of their husband's family – persist.
Many victims suffer multiple forms of slavery, alongside other human rights violations. Among the key root causes that expose people to slavery is pervasive and long-standing racial discrimination, which is deeply connected to unequal access to justice, education, health services, land, livelihoods or decent employment opportunities.
For example, the vast majority of people in debt bondage in South Asia belong to minority groups – who are targeted, and may receive inadequate protection from the authorities, because of their caste, social or ethnic origin. In Latin America, forced labour and debt bondage are disproportionately inflicted on indigenous peoples. In some African countries, children continue to be born into slavery-like conditions. In Europe, some segments of the diverse Roma communities continue to arrange marriage among children and adolescents, with serious human rights consequences in particular for Romani women and girls.
Today, the global health economic and social crisis caused by COVID-19 heightens these risks. As the Special Rapporteur on Slavery has reported, increased poverty, food shortages, cuts in public services and debt – including for health-care – are increasing the risk that people will fall prey to offers of black-market work far from home. School closures make it more likely that children will be forced into the worst forms of child labour, or early and forced marriage. And families with their livelihoods destroyed are being pressed into bonded or forced labour for survival.
The crisis undermines the already precarious conditions of those people who have survived, and escaped, slavery – some of whom benefit from the assistance of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. It’s worth noting that organizations supported by the Fund are seeing increased humanitarian needs among slavery survivors.
In some cases, movement restrictions – while a very necessary pandemic response – are preventing victims in exploitative situations from being identified and rescued.
Upholding the right to development should be at the core of all efforts to eliminate slavery. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has recognised this by creating a specific target on the eradication of slavery and slavery-like practises. We cannot allow this struggle to be given a lower priority at this crucial time.
We need coordinated global action – by States, international actors and civil society. Many United Nations agencies have a role to play, and synergies and coalitions among key stakeholders, such as Alliance 8.7, should be encouraged.
We face a challenging context for this work – but we can also be certain that what we do will make a powerful difference to the lives of many people. The struggle to end slavery, to care for survivors and to empower them with new tools to build a life of dignity, is a profound service to the world, and I commend all those who are engaged in it. Today's webinar can give a strong new drive to these efforts.
I hope it will also bring new impetus to the crucial work of the Voluntary Fund for Victims of Slavery. At this time of greatest need, I encourage everyone to contribute to this vital cause.