Slavery – is it making a comeback?

There is a growing awareness that as many as 45.8 million people may be enslaved around the world today, and that supply-chains for basic commodities such as supermarket seafood, smartphone materials, and cosmetic mica, may be sustaining slavery. The UN’s recent Sustainable Development Goals commit states, several times over, to address human trafficking, forced labor and modern slavery.

And there is growing alarm about the vulnerability of irregular migrants and people displaced by conflict, from Mexico to the Mediterranean to Myanmar, to human trafficking and exploitation. A recent IOM report suggested that as many as 76 percent of those migrants and refugees surveyed in Italy may have been exposed to human trafficking.

Perhaps most poignantly, there are growing reports of increasingly sophisticated and institutionalized efforts by ISIL and Boko Haram to reinstate slavery as an institution, and to profit from it.

The UN has reported that over 5,000 Yazidi women, children and men are enslaved by ISIL, which has organized slave markets and contract registries, openly advocates for the revival of slavery through official mouthpieces, and has even issued “how-to” manuals. Increasingly, ISIL also relies on forced child recruits as suicide bombers.

ISIL’s use of slaves is not just the problem of countries such as Iraq and Syria. Like today’s conflicts, the problem has become internationalized. A UN Commission of Inquiry found that men from Algeria, Australia, Belgium, Egypt, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Uzbekistan have participated in ISIL’s enslavement and human trafficking crimes. And other armed groups, such as Boko Haram, are following suit.

This is partly the result of social media. In the last year, the UN reports, ISIL fighters have used the encrypted communications app Telegram to set up online slave auctions, circulating photos of captured Yazidi females, including their age, marital status, current location and price. Recently, members of ISIL have attempted to sell enslaved women on Facebook and YouTube. Displaced female Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been traded on WhatsApp, and apps such as Twitter and Threema have both been used in laundering resulting profits. 

Enter, the Security Council

A range of actors are now calling for a more concerted global response. Given the complexity of the problem, and the links between human trafficking and economic exploitation, what can – or should – the UN Security Council possibly do?

This was exactly the question before the Security Council last December when, at the instigation of US Mission to the UN, the council held its first-ever debate on human trafficking and conflict.  At the conclusion of the debate, the Security Council adopted a Presidential Statement, which proposes a range of steps to help address the problem — from strengthening criminal justice mechanisms to assisting victims and strengthening accountability arrangements when UN peacekeepers are implicated in sexual violence and human trafficking. The statement also requested a report from the Secretary-General, within a year, on steps taken within the UN system.

There are real practical and political limits to Security Council action on this issue, not least because some states see it as primarily a law enforcement problem for member states to tackle as best they can alone, or working together – without Security Council interference.

But there is also now a unique opening for action, as states increasingly recognize that, like terrorism, human trafficking in conflict may in some cases constitute a threat to international peace and security – and that states may benefit from some collective response.

Denunciation and Accountability

First, the Security Council should clearly denounce human trafficking in conflict as not only a potential war crime (as it did in its 2015 Presidential Statement) but in some cases, a crime against humanity.

Some states in the Security Council have resisted using this terminology, since crimes against humanity can also occur outside conflict contexts. Participants at the workshop argued, however, that it is clear that in some existing cases – such as the widespread and systematic use of human trafficking by ISIL and Boko Haram – the organizational policy and other factual requirements for a crime against humanity are arguably made out, opening the door to potential international prosecution and to prosecution by  individual UN member states.

Monitoring and disruption

Second, the Security Council could take steps to monitor and disrupt human trafficking connected to armed conflicts using tools already available to it. It suggests that much more could be done with existing UN counter-terrorism and conflict sanctions regimes to address this problem. And it also considers how other tools, such as the mechanism used for monitoring groups’ impact on children in armed conflict – could be adapted to deal with human trafficking.

Supply-chain due diligence standards

Third, the Security Council could foster private sector action by encouraging data-sharing and due diligence in industries linked to human trafficking in conflict. The report proposes the creation of a Group of Experts to report to the Security Council on the utility of enhanced due diligence guidance to protect specific industries against involvement in human trafficking in conflict – notably the financial sector, the global employment and recruitment agency sector, and the information and communication technology (ICT) sector. The Security Council has recently paid growing attention to terrorist groups’ use of social media capabilities (see S/PRST/2015/11 and S/RES/2250), but has not yet drawn the connection to the use of ICT platforms both to traffic recruits into terrorist ranks, and to auction off enslaved victims.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights already make clear that business has a Responsibility to Respect human rights, and in the past the Security Council has encouraged the development of due diligence guidance relating to importation, processing and consumption of minerals from mines under the control of illegal armed groups in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and relating to the mining industry in Eritrea.

Resulting guidance has required specified private sector actors to:

  • strengthen company management systems;
  • identify and assess risk in the supply chain;
  • design and implement a strategy to respond to identified risks;
  • ensure independent third-party audits; and
  • publicly disclose supply chain due diligence and findings.

This guidance has had important knock-on effects – for example, the inclusion of disclosure requirements for conflict minerals in the Dodd-Frank Act in the US, which in turn influenced US Securities and Exchange Commission disclosure requirements, and the negotiation of EU reporting regulations for conflict minerals. A signal from the Security council that member states and the private sector should take a similarly precautionary approach to prevent trafficking in humans in, into and from conflict could have a similarly profound effect.


Fourth, the report canvases ideas for Security Council action to help protect those displaced by conflict – present levels are at a historic high of 65 million people – a group especially vulnerable to human trafficking. The Security Council could encourage UN agencies and states to do more to identify, assist and protect civilians in trafficking hotspots, through rapid reaction capabilities, reporting taskforces and targeted information campaigns.

The technology sector also has a role to play here. Social media providers may be able to use geospatial data and content to identify people vulnerable to trafficking, and to warn them of particular risks. The London Metropolitan Police has released online videos of Syrian migrant women warning foreigners about the realities of life under ISIL, to counter fraudulent recruitment and trafficking into ISIL. Social media providers can ensure these messages get to the right audience.

A framework for action

Finally, the report proposes a framework for future action on this topic by the Security Council, including annual reporting and discussion, and the creation by the Secretary-General of a new position of Special Representative, to drive action on this problem. Since the council is a crisis-response mechanism, it sometimes struggles to develop long-term thinking on cross-cutting and transnational threats. Experience with similar issues, such as counter-terrorism and women, peace and security, suggest that the council is most successful where it establishes a framework for recurring dialogue and action, and an actor responsible for driving work forward in this area.