* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The time for pledges has passed. Now is the time for Commonwealth nations to act
By Sneh Aurora, Director, London office, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, and Katharine Bryant, Lead of European Engagement, Walk Free
At the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), governments committed to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7, by taking “effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking, and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour in all its forms by 2025, including the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers.”
The stark reality is that very little has changed in the two years following this commitment.
Progress is too slow
Today, Walk Free and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) have released Eradicating Modern Slavery: An assessment of Commonwealth government progress on achieving SDG Target 8.7 – which highlights the need for renewed urgency to deliver on the promises made by Commonwealth member states in 2018.
The report shows that progress to achieve SDG 8.7 is far too slow and that all Commonwealth governments must do much more to eradicate modern slavery. There has been some progress since 2018; for example, Pakistan passed comprehensive trafficking legislation, the UK established an Evidence and Policy Centre for research, The Gambia ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, and Australia adopted a Modern Slavery Act requiring companies to report on their actions to combat modern slavery.
Yet despite this sporadic progress, critical gaps remain. Only one third of Commonwealth member states have criminalised forced marriage and 23 have failed to criminalise commercial child sexual exploitation. Out of 54 Commonwealth countries, only four have engaged with business to investigate supply chains, and all countries reported gaps in victim assistance programs.
COVID-19 has increased uncertainty and has potentially undone the little progress achieved so far. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in systems of protection and exacerbated the vulnerability of those most at risk. While COVID-19 has brought much of society to a standstill, the inhumane business of modern slavery continues and the lives of the most vulnerable have been made more precarious. High-demand sectors are seeing major recruitment drives, and fewer labour supply chain checks have led to an increase in the risk of modern slavery.
Why the Commonwealth?
One in 150 people in the Commonwealth are living in modern slavery. This represents approximately 15.7 million men, women, and children who are subject to forced labour, human trafficking, domestic servitude, bonded labour, or forced marriage. Given the scale of the problem it is critical that the Commonwealth collaborate to galvanise action to eradicate modern slavery in all its forms.
There is a real opportunity here.
This report comes at a critical juncture – a time when the world is awakening to ongoing injustices, questioning and grappling with historical inequalities, and confronting unprecedented crises. We are realising that we are all responsible for correcting past crimes against humanity — but also that large-scale, systemic change, is possible.
Forty percent of the estimated 40.3 million victims of modern slavery live in Commonwealth countries. This figure, by itself, is enough to demonstrate the urgent need for action by Commonwealth member states.
How do we galvanise action in the Commonwealth?
The time is now for concrete action. The current theme of the rescheduled 2021 CHOGM (postponed from 2020 due to COVID-19) is to deliver on the promises made in 2018. We have 10 years before governments will be called to account under the SDGs in 2030.
Eradicating Modern Slavery provides the evidence to kick start our campaign to ensure that concrete action is taken. At the 2021 CHOGM, we will be calling on the Commonwealth to implement a major initiative to focus on modern slavery. We will urge that this initiative focus on supporting survivors, strengthening legislation, improving coordination and accountability, address underlying risk factors, and eradicating exploitation from supply chains.
We will be using the findings and recommendations in this report not just in our work with Commonwealth governments in the run up to 2021, but also in our efforts to raise awareness, advocate, organise and mobilize a strong international push by civil society organisations, academics, media, and mandate holders to maintain the pressure.
Of course, survivors of modern slavery must be central to informing and influencing these conversations. They need to be integral in developing intervention strategies, building civil society coalitions, and formulating policies to tackle modern slavery. The Commonwealth 8.7 Network, founded by CHRI and comprising over 60 local organisations across the globe, has been an invaluable and unique resource in ensuring that frontline perspectives inform the report’s data. But it is more than that — the 8.7 Network can provide momentum to the protection, rescue and rehabilitation of victims and survivors.
Walk Free and CHRI’s report outlines clear recommendations and calls for urgent, coordinated action by all Commonwealth member states before the next CHOGM and beyond. The Commonwealth must go beyond its efforts to coordinate and share information. Commonwealth states must be empowered to assess, respond and review their commitments to achieve SDG Target 8.7 by 2030. We encourage the Commonwealth Secretariat to take a leadership role and work collaboratively with governments and civil society organisations to end modern slavery.
In 2020, governments can no longer plead ignorance to the realities of modern slavery. Leaders are now either part of the problem or part of the solution.
The time for pledges has passed. Now is the time for Commonwealth nations to act.