Modern forms of slavery

Human trafficking can be defined as “the recruitment, transportation,  transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of 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.” (UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons)

While the means through which modern and traditional forms of slavery  have operated differ greatly, the violation of human rights and human  dignity are central issues in both practices, such as proclaimed in the  1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today,  according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM),  millions of people, primarily women and children, are subjected to this  tragic fate, thus underscoring the imperative of all countries to  address and prevent the trafficking of persons.

In the context of  the “Project to Fight Human Trafficking in Africa”, UNESCO aims to  promote effective and culturally appropriate policy-making to combat the  trafficking of women and children in Western and Southern Africa. The  project conducts policy-oriented research on factors related to the  trafficking in pilot countries, collects best practices in fighting  trafficking at its roots, and organizes training workshops for  policymakers, NGOs, community leaders and the media.

In addition,  the Trafficking and HIV/AIDS Project based at the UNESCO Bangkok Office  tackles the linked triad of problems-HIV/AIDS, trafficking, and  non-traditional drug use-in the Greater Mekong Subregion, by  researching, developing, and implementing programmes which crosscut  these issues to address the needs of at-risk and vulnerable populations.  This project builds on UNESCO’s regional pillar of “extending  international protection to endangered, vulnerable and minority cultures  and cultural expressions”.

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Today  various international conventions define slavery and human trafficking  as a “crime against humanity” punishable by international law.

Resistances and abolitions

Uprising aboard© UNESCO

The first fighters for the abolition of slavery were the captives and  slaves themselves, who adopted various methods of resistance throughout  their enslavement, from their capture in Africa to their sale and  exploitation on plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. Rebellion  and suicide were often used as main forms of resistance.

The American colonies were frequently disrupted by slave revolts, or  the threat of revolt. The administrators of the British and French  colonies in the 1730’s observed that a “wind of freedom” was blowing in  the Caribbean, thereby indicating the existence of a veritable  resistance to slavery. This was to materialize some 50 years later with  the slave rebellion in Santo-Domingo.

As early as the late  seventeenth century, individuals, as well as the various abolitionist  societies that had been established, began condemning slavery and the  slave trade. This impetus essentially originated from the  English-speaking countries. Up until the end of the nineteenth century British, French and North American abolitionists devised a set of moral, religious and occasionally economic arguments as a means of combating the slave trade and slavery (PDF).

An irreversible process The  destruction of the slavery system began in the French colony of Santo  Domingo towards the end of the eighteenth century. This long-running process  (PDF) lasted until 1886 in Cuba and 1888 in Brazil. The slave rebellion  on Santo Domingo in August 1791 profoundly weakened the Caribbean  colonial system, sparking a general insurrection that lead to the  abolition of slavery and the independence of the island. It marked the  beginning of a triple process of destruction of the slavery system, the  slave trade and colonialism.

Two outstanding decrees for abolition were produced during the nineteenth century: the Abolition Bill  passed by the British Parliament in August 1833 and the French decree  signed by the Provisional Government in April 1848. In the United  States, the Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, extended the  abolition of slavery to the whole Union in the wake of the Civil War in  1865. The abolition of slavery – which at the time concerned  approximately 4 million people – became the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Trade in the Indian Ocean


The societies of the Indian Ocean,  including Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, Seychelles, came into  being at different times through ancient slave trades and the  migrations of populations from Africa, Asia and Europe.

The system of slavery had existed in the islands of the Indian Ocean  since before colonization, particularly in Madagascar and the Comoros  Islands, where slaves were brought by Swahili traders from the east  coast of Africa.

The arrival of Europeans to the Indian Ocean in  the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries heralded the start of a  revitalized slave trade, which led to the population and exploitation of  the Mascarene Islands. Thus, the system of slavery severed millions of  people from their roots and ultimately gave rise to a new society.

For  example, new oral traditions developed throughout the period of  slavery  as slaves were forbidden to read and write up to the time of  the  abolitions. Furthermore, the suppression of slavery did not  propagate  the end of social discrimination as servility persisted  through  alternative forms of servitude such as recruiting, day-labouring and share-cropping.

The Oral Tradition UNESCO’s research program to identify and register the oral memory of the islands of the south-western Indian Ocean,   working from within the framework of the Slave Route Project, has   brought to the fore the need to safeguard the oral heritage of the   islands that have experienced the slave trade and slavery.

Additionally,  UNESCO’s programme to trace oral memory has generated  growing interest  in the preservation of memory among populations  effected by the trade.  As such, the University of Mauritius, the Nelson  Mandela Centre, the  Seychelles National Institute of Education, the  Abro in Rodrigues and  the CNDRS in the Comoros each launched  documentary programmes in 2001  and 2002. These programmes are  continuing with both inventory and field  training activities. Documents  have been digitalized and stored in the  national institutions of the  islands and may be accessed by the general  public.

An Inventory of Sites of Memory in the Indian Ocean Region The   programme to identify and catalogue the oral heritage, developed over   three years in collaboration with UNESCO, has achieved significant   results in the Indian Ocean region (Reunion, the Comoros Islands,   Mauritius and Rodrigues, the Seychelles Islands and Madagascar). It is   now possible to envision the drafting of an exhaustive list of all sites   linked to the memory of the slave trade. The programme must take into   account the specificity of the slave trade in the region such as its   development over a thousand years, and its continuation after the legal   abolition of slavery under the guise of recruiting. It involved not  only  the African continent but also the Indian sub-continent and Asia,  as  well as the places relative to marooning. In this respect, the data   collected on the oral heritage should provide information to help carry   out the listing of the sites and places of memory.

Some of the  islands of the Indian Ocean, such as Reunion, Mauritius,  and the  Seychelles, have already registered some of the sites linked  to the  slave trade. The project, which will be implemented during the  2006-2007  biennium, will begin by listing sites in Madagascar and the  Comoros  Islands, as they have not yet established an exhaustive list of  their  sites and places of memory.

The project will be coordinated by  the UNESCO Chair after a regional  scientific committee has been  established. The committee is to be  supported by local authorities as  well as regional scientific  institutions and academia

23 August: International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and of its Abolition

The night of 22 to 23 August 1791, in Santo Domingo (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) saw the beginning of the uprising that would play a crucial role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition is intended to inscribe the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples. In accordance with the goals of the intercultural project “The Slave Route”, it should offer an opportunity for collective consideration of the historic causes, the methods and the consequences of this tragedy, and for an analysis of the interactions to which it has given rise between Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean.

The Director-General of UNESCO invites the Ministers of Culture of all Member States to organize events every year on that date, involving the entire population of their country and in particular young people, educators, artists and intellectuals.

International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition was first celebrated in a number of countries, in particular in Haiti (23 August 1998) and Goree in Senegal (23 August 1999). Cultural events and debates too were organized. The year 2001 saw the participation of the Mulhouse Textile Museum in France in the form of a workshop for fabrics called “Indiennes de Traite” (a type of calico) which served as currency for the exchange of slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.