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International Laws

Human trafficking and slavery are complex transnational and international problems, prompting an equally complex web of responses from the global community.  This page provides information about the international legal and institutional framework aimed at addressing human trafficking, slavery and similar practices.

Defining Slavery, Forced Labour and Trafficking

The Slavery Convention (1926) and Protocol (1953)

Developed by the League of Nations, the Slavery Convention sets out the classical definition of slavery:

Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.

The Parties to this Convention undertook:

(a) To prevent and suppress the slave trade;

(b) To bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms.

The 1953 Protocol amended the Convention to bring it within the then newly-formed United Nations system.

The International Labour Organisation developed the Forced Labour Convention (1930) outlawing forced or compulsory labour, defined as:

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.

This was supplemented by the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (1957) which abolished certain exemptions set out in the earlier convention, including forced labour:

as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social or economic system


as a punishment for having participated in strikes.

Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956) was designed tointensify national as well as international efforts towards the abolition of slavery” and outlaw specific slavery-like practices, including:

Debt Bondage:

the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his 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.


the condition or status of a tenant who is by law, custom or agreement bound to live and labour on land belonging to another person and to render some determinate service to such other person, whether for reward or not, and is not free to change his status

Specific practices related to women and children (including forced or servile marriage):

[where] a woman, without the right to refuse, is promised or given in marriage on payment of a consideration in money or in kind to her parents, guardian, family or any other person or group; or

The husband of a woman, his family, or his clan, has the right to transfer her to another person for value received or otherwise; or

A woman on the death of her husband is liable to be inherited by another person;

[and where] a child or young person under the age of 18 years, is delivered by either or both of his natural parents or by his guardian to another person, whether for reward or not, with a view to the exploitation of the child or young person or of his labour.

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons especially Women and Children (2000) (opens in pdf) supplements the Palermo Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

The Protocol defines trafficking as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

It defines exploitation as

at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;

The Protocol also provides that the consent of a victim to exploitation is irrelevant where the victim has been threatened, coerced, or deceived, or the trafficker has abused a position of power or taken advantage of the victim’s position of vulnerability.

International Institutional Framework

The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT)we-fight

UN.GIFT brings together UN agencies and intergovernmental organisations working to combat human trafficking, namely, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

UN.GIFT primarily finds its mandate in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons especially Women and Children, which supplements the Palermo Convention against Transnational Organised Crime. Click here for a summary of the Convention its Protocols, click here for full text (opens in pdf).

Human Rights

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


The international human rights framework is overseen by the OHCHR.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the original, comprehensive international statement f human rights.  It was adopted by resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Article 4 of the UDHR specifically addresses slavery:

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

The ‘international bill of rights’ is found in the twin instruments of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. A useful summary of these conventions and their protocols can be found here.

The UN’s Human Rights Council appoints the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of slavery, its causes and consequences . The Special Rapporteur investigates instances of slavery and slavery like practices, and presents findings and makes recommendations to the Human Rights Council. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate on contemporary forms of slavery includes but is not limited to issues such as: debt bondage, serfdom, forced labour, child slavery, sexual slavery, forced or early marriages and the sale of wives.

The Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990) aims to ensure the basic human rights of migrant workers and their families.

It defines "migrant worker" as:

a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.

It seeks to guarantee basic rights for migrant workers, such as access to justice, the right to be free from discrimination, and the right to return to their country of origin. Australia is not a signatory to this convention.

International Labour Rights

International Labour Organisation


The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is a specialized UN agency working to promote basic labour and human rights at work across the globe. The ILO works through an extensive list of conventions and recommendations, which can be accessed through its online database. The ILO conventions deal with the full spectrum of labour rights and standards. The most relevant to our work include:


  • Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29): prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labour, which is defined as "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."
  • Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105): prohibits forced or compulsory labour as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social or economic system; as a method of mobilizing and using labour for purposes of economic development; as a means of labour discipline; as a punishment for having participated in strikes; and as a means of racial, social, national or religious discrimination.
  • Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182): forced or compulsory labour is considered one of the worst forms of child labour.
  • Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), 1949 (No. 97): Requires ratifying states to facilitate international migration for employment by establishing and maintaining a free assistance and information service for migrant workers and taking measures against misleading propaganda relating to emigration and immigration.
  • Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143): Provides for measures to combat clandestine and illegal migration while at the same time setting forth the general obligation to respect the basic human rights of all migrant workers.
  • Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (not yet in force): sets minimum requirements for seafarers to work on a ship and contains provisions on conditions of employment, hours of work and rest, accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering, health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection.
  • Home Work Convention, 1996 (No. 177): promotes equality of treatment between homeworkers and other wage earners, in particular in relation to freedom of association, protection against discrimination , occupational safety and health, remuneration, social security, access to training, minimum age for admission to work, and maternity protection.
  • Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, 2011 (no. 189)  (not yet in force): aims to set basic standards for domestic workers, including reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, a limit on in-kind payment, clear information on terms and conditions of employment, as well as respect for fundamental principles and rights at work including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.


Regional Framework

The Bali Process


The Bali Process, which Australia co-chairs with Indonesia, brings governments and intergovernmental bodies together to work on practical measures to help combat people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crimes in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

Asia Regional Trafficking in Persons Project

ARTIP was an initiative funded by the former executive agency for international aid and development in Australia, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). ARTIP commenced in August 2006 and ran for its expected 5 years, ending on 25 August 2011. ARTIP’s goal and purpose was to contribute to the prevention of trafficking in persons in the Asia region by facilitating a more effective and coordinated approach to trafficking by the criminal justice systems of participating national governments. ARTIP worked in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.


Contact Us

Anti-Slavery Australia, University of Technology Sydney
Phone: +61-2-9514 9660