Skip Content

State Responsibility for Modern Slavery: Uncovering and Bridging the Gap

Principal Investigator: Dr Philippa Webb, Reader of Public International Law, King’s College London
Co-Applicant: Dr James Cockayne, Head of Office, United Nations University
Research Associate: Dr Rosana Garciandia, King’s College London

Modern slavery is one of the prevailing international challenges. Although slavery has been illegal under international law for over a century, 40.3 million people were in modern slavery on any given day in 2016. The UK has been at the forefront of tackling modern slavery on national and international levels. This research project aims to address a gap in the current response by examining the responsibility that arises from states for modern slavery. Existing research and strategies have focused on the role of the non-state actors and the positive obligations of states to ‘Prevent, Protect and Punish’ these non-state actors. The responsibility of states has been overlooked or avoided. This project, in partnership with the United Nations University, will have unique access to a fact base on governmental practices around labour migration and potentially significant impact through a launch at UN Headquarters and dissemination through the Alliance 8.7 Knowledge Platform.

About the project:
The UN 2030 Agenda calls for all actors to work together towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, with special emphasis on the role of States. One of its targets,
Target 8.7, calls to “take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking”.

International law prohibits all forms of modern slavery through instruments ratified by most States in the international community. Slavery and institutions and practices similar to slavery are defined and prohibited by the 1926 Slavery Convention and the 1956 Supplementary Convention; human trafficking is the focus of the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; and forced labour is defined and prohibited by the International Labour Organisation Protocol on Forced Labour.

Despite the prohibition of modern slavery by various instruments of international law, 40.3 million people were in modern slavery on any given day in 2016 according to estimations of the International Labour Organisation. The inclusion of target 8.7 in the 2030 Agenda shows the need for action towards the elimination of all forms of contemporary slavery, where enforcement of the existing instruments rises many challenges.

Those challenges are being tackled mainly through the human rights framework and the criminal law framework. The human rights framework focuses on protecting the rights of victims and potential victims of modern slavery. The criminal law framework focuses on prosecuting and convicting those responsible. Under these two frameworks, the State is seen mainly as protector and enforcer. The State has the obligation to create and ensure the functioning of institutions protecting the victims and the potential victims and guarantee their rights. It also has the obligation to ensure the prosecution and conviction of those actors who are committing the offences. All those constitute the so called “positive obligations” of States to “respect, protect and promote human rights”.

Unfortunately, those are not the only roles that a State can play in modern slavery cases. Some State organs or officials are directly involved in human trafficking, forced labour and slavery. What is worst, in some cases a State can practice slavery as part of its executive policy. There are a wide range of cases in which the State is to some extent involved or complicit in a modern slavery offence. International law provides the legal framework to look at those cases from the perspective of State responsibility.
This project focuses on those situations and analyses them in light of the ILC Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts. Its aim is to identify the main scenarios in which this situation arises and to provide legal and policy proposals that will contribute to achieving target 8.7 while holding States accountable when they are involved in modern slavery cases.

The project is premised on three hypotheses:

1) Some States are involved in modern slavery, typically through organs, State-owned entities and agents.

2) States are generally committed to tackling modern slavery by non-State actors and are working to fulfil their positive obligations, but they are avoiding an examination of other States’ potential responsibility.

3) There are possibilities for tackling modern slavery through holding States responsible in legal and political fora.

Although data available on these practices is restricted given their illicit nature and the subsequent efforts of States to hide them, the study will rely on evidence collected by the UN University in cooperation with the 8.7 Alliance and well as by other international organisations with expertise on the matter.

Project milestones

The project will gather two workshops, one in the summer and one in the autumn, at which experts in the field will discuss the ongoing research progress.

• Summer workshop in New York

On 20 July, a first workshop will take place in July in New York counting, among other participants, with the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Urmila Bhoola, as well as with experts representing the International Labour Organisation, civil society organisations and academia.

• Autumn workshop in London

On 16 November, a second workshop will gather experts in London, to discuss the legal and policy proposals that will result from the first phase of the project.

• High profile launch at United Nations Headquarters

With the support of the UN University, the research project’s findings will be launched at the UN in New York. Using the UN University’s network, this launch will have a potentially high policy impact, reaching 193 Member States, civil society and other stakeholders involved in fighting modern slavery.


By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.