Fighting the World’s Largest Criminal Industry: Modern Slavery

Modern slavery and human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries and one of the biggest human rights crises today, United Nations and government officials said.

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage, published at;

During an event as part of the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), government officials, UN human rights experts, and civil society representatives came together to discuss the staggering trends in human trafficking as well as steps forward in the fight against modern slavery.

“Given that slavery was officially abolished in the 19th century and pretty much every country in the world has outlawed it, the trends are really alarming,” Liechtenstein’s Ambassador to the UN Christian Wenaweser told IPS. “Modern slavery is one of the defining human rights crisis of our time… it is very much an international and transnational phenomenon so we can do this together. We have to tackle it together,” he added.

An estimated 40 million people were living in modern slavery around the world in 2016, and women and girls are disproportionately affected. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 71 percent of victims of modern slavery are female. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that out of the detected trafficking victims, 49 percent are women and 23 percent are girls. The vast majority of victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation, while others are exploited for forced labor and forced marriage.

“The gender dimensions of the practice cannot be ignored. Modern slavery and human trafficking constitutes gender-based violence against women and girls… gender inequality is a both a cause and a consequence of this phenomenon,” said Australia’s Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer. Panelists also noted that women and girls are especially vulnerable to exploitations in situations of armed conflict. Nadia Murad, who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is UNODC’s Goodwill Ambassador, was among thousands of Yazidi women who were kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS). Many are forced to be sex slaves, and reports found that IS even uses social media sites such as Facebook to sell Yazidi women as sex slaves. While Murad was able to escape, an estimated 3,000 Yazidi women and girls are still enslaved. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has also kidnapped women and girls for the purposes of sexual slavery and forced marriage. A report by the Henry Jackson Society found that Boko Haram members would impregnate women in order to produce the “next generation of fighters.” “Boko Haram’s fighters do not capture people, their standard procedure was to kill the men and treat the women and children as booty to be bargained over and sold for profit,” said Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Pramila Patten. “These examples show that trafficking and sexual violence, including sexual slavery, are not just incidental but systematic, institutionalised and strategic,” she added.

However, new international initiatives are underway to fight modern slavery and human trafficking including some by the financial sector.

“That which we walk by, we endorse. I think that’s really critical for all of us, especially in the financial sector itself that while we may not actively participate in trafficking, if we walk by or turn a blind eye…then in a sense we are endorsing it,” said the Commissioner of the Financial Sector Commission against Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Frederick Reynolds. Ambassador Wenaweser also highlighted the role of the financial sector, stating: “Modern slavery is essentially the economic exploitation of people. You make people into a commodity and you make a lot of money, so the role of the financial institutions is really key.”

Globally, modern slavery generates 150 billion dollars annually. In fact, one of the major drivers behind sexual trafficking is revenue.

According to the Henry Jackson Society, IS alone generated up to 30 million dollars in 2016 through abductions. As the group struggles to finance its operations due to the decrease in revenues from other sources such as oil sales and taxation, modern slavery may increase. The Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking hopes to combat this illicit industry.

Also known as the Liechtenstein Initiative, the Commission is a public-private partnership that brings together leaders from the financial sector, civil society, as well as survivors to find innovative ways to end modern slavery including through anti-trafficking compliance and responsible investment. “We have chosen this because we are a financial center…and we wanted to put the expertise of our financial centre to a positive and constructive use,” Ambassador Wenaweser told IPS.

In September 2019, the initiative will provide a roadmap with actionable steps and concrete tools for the financial sector. While the financial sector alone cannot solve the complex issue, Reynolds noted that they are a key part of the solution and highlighted crucial actions such as the increased exchange of information between the financial sector and law enforcement. Patten pointed to the need to address root causes of human trafficking including gender discrimination as well as the importance of a survivor-centred approach. “[Survivors’] testimonies can inform and strengthen our responses to improve prevention…Women and girls cannot be reduced to currency in the political economy of armed conflict and terrorism. They cannot be bartered, traded, trafficked..because their sexual and reproductive rights are non negotiable,” she said.