23 minutes | Jul 3rd 2019

How is the UN working to end modern slavery?

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In Episode 6 of Series 4, we talk to James Cockayne, Director of Centre for Policy Research at the United Nations University in New York. He is the Project Director for Delta 8.7 – The Alliance 8.7 Knowledge Platform, and is Head of the Secretariat for the Liechtenstein Initiative for a Financial Sector Commission on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking.

 0.00– 1.57

 Todd begins by reflecting on the size of the UN and asks James how it helps us understand the fight to end modern slavery.

  • James agrees that the UN is a huge organisation and, as far as tackling slavery is concerned, it is:
    1. A forum for member states to talk about global problems like modern slavery.
    2. A set of technical agencies undertaking research to help us understand what modern slavery looks like on the ground.
    3. A set of organisations that can respond on the ground e.g. peacekeeping in conflict situations, delivering education programmes (Unicef, Global Children’s Fund) through to protection of workers’ rights by the International Labour Organisation
  • James argues this allows the UN to look at the problem holistically revealing how it manifests itself differently in different places.

 1.57– 4.56

The discussion moves to whether the UN treats modern slavery as a human rights problem. James says it does but that it is not straightforward because:

  • Modern slavery plays out differently in different contexts.
  • Modern slavery is treated differently by member states and described and viewed differently within the UN system.
  • Some parts of the UN see modern or contemporary slavery as a human rights problem based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whilst others see it through the lens of labour rights or as a criminal justice problem.
  • Todd points out that quite a bit of modern slavery discourse surrounds conflict and humanitarian law.
  • James agrees - in the last few years the UN has been grappling with the connections between these different manifestations and how to respond to it. He offers the example of ISIS/Daesh in Iraq and Syria who use slavery to generate money, to attract fighters by offering enslaved women and girls and dominate the local population. This leads to mass displacement creating its own vulnerabilities to trafficking in Lebanon and other surrounding countries that host refugees. These flow on into North Africa and Europe creating new problems demonstrating the complexities in the way the problems connect.
  • James suggests that the UN is present all along the chain and that there are human rights issues across the chain, but they are probably playing out differently in each case. 

4.56 – 6.07

Todd moves the discussion on to modern slavery in a business context, mentioning the UN Global Compact and the Ruggie principles.  

  • James agrees modern slavery is increasingly a part of this but asserts that the anti-slavery movement “has been a little slow on the uptake” in engaging with the broader business and human rights discourse.
  • He believes lessons are being learned by business and by government about how to ensure respect for human rights in the business world and that this is flowing into the modern slavery movement and having a positive impact.

6.07 – 11.48

Todd asks how the UN is moving towards the realisation of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals and associated 169 targets especially those relating to modern slavery.

  • James points again to the size and complexity of the UN and the ambitious set of goals and targets at the heart of its operations. He explains how progression in one area might have a knock-on in others (both positive and negative).
  • For modern slavery this has meant having to think about how efforts to end it connect to broader efforts to achieve sustainable development, e.g. education, gender, work or environmental goals and targets. This requires a more integrated approach and for individual agencies to look beyond their own self-interest.
  • James outlines how Alliance 8.7, led by the ILO is at the heart of this. He describes it as “a multi-stakeholder circus tent” where everyone is welcome and can test the effectiveness of their responses. He explains the science of this is interesting as measuring the incidence of modern slavery is very difficult. He adds that the work of Rights Lab and within the UN has led to major strides in this area. There is still work to be done to establish whether they are meeting their targets.
  • The best estimate from the ILO from 2016 is 40.3 million slaves in the world meaning 9,000 people a day would need to be moved out of modern slavery to achieve the target. As things stand, James acknowledged they don’t know if the figure is moving up or down.
  • Todd adds that the number of people moving into modern slavery also needs to be taken into account. James agrees and mentions that Brazil, which has a good track record, has removed 50,000 slaves across 20 years suggesting there is a long way to go. Good research and evidence is fundamental to progress as is the availability of funding.
  • Todd agrees and outlines the problems with statistics in this area.

 11:39 – 12.49

 Todd asks about Delta 8.7 and its relation to Alliance 8.7

  • Delta 8.7 is the knowledge platform of the alliance created by UN university centre for policy research.
  • The aim is to make it easier for policy actors to understand the evidence in individual countries. James continues to explain how this is done using individual country dashboards which include easy to access and understand information on modern slavery along with other local factors.

 12.49 – 14.07

In February 2019 there was an event called Code 8.7 which Todd asks James to talk about.

 14.07 – 16.27

Todd talks about previous podcast episodes with Patrick Ball, the Human Rights Data Analyst Group Executive Director, about machine learning and the discourse of perpetrators and Dr Doreen Boyd who used satellite imagery to identify brick kilns in South Asia. He asks whether this is evidence the UN would consider important in the fight against modern slavery.

  • James says that we have to use every source of data available, and that artificial intelligence is important to sort non-traditional data streams. He believes that Code 8.7 offers new analytical pathways into the problem and also practical applications for helping accelerate response.
  • Todd suggests James’ background as a lawyer is crucial in telling what machine learning and A.I. to look for. There is a fear that natural biases from coders will lead to a misuse of these new tools meaning that definitions and legal parameters become more important.

16.27 – End

With this in mind Todd asks what is the core content of modern slavery?

  • James says target 8.7 “talks in one breath about modern slavery, forced labour, human trafficking and the worst forms of child labour” and believes this sends a powerful signal to political actors that there is a need for a collaborative response.
  • Modern slavery itself is not a term of international law but an umbrella discourse term to encapsulate a range of things.
  • A group of academic statisticians led by the ILO, has created a statistical methodology providing a basis for national survey methodologies giving us a common starting point regardless of the varying legal definitions. This will take several years to get results on the ground but James hopes other technologies will also evolve in this time to make a meaningful difference.
  • He concludes by saying survivors have to be at the heart of this process with their explicit consent to avoid traumatising them and increasing vulnerability. Todd agrees and highlights the dilemma in human rights arguing that they are articulated differently in different areas. Emphasising the need to avoid a dissonance between the ivory towers of the UN and the reality on the ground.
  • James says the first 3 words of the UN charter  are “We the peoples” and then it goes on to talk about countries which creates a natural tension between intergovernmental politics and the people we are supposed to be serving.
  • He asserts that the UN have to engage with the communities they are trying to help without being patronising.

 Previous Rights Track podcasts of interest

Eye in the sky: rooting out slavery from space Dr Doreen Boyd on how satellite imagery is being used to root out slavery

How can statistics advance human rights? Patrick Ball about how statistics can be used to advance and protect human rights

Crunching numbers: modern slavery and statistics Sir Bernard Silverman about modern slavery and statistics listen to 

References

  1. Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (New York: Cornell University Press, 2013).
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