The Challenge of Human Rights
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The Challenge of Human Rights

Past, Present and Future

Edited by David Keane and Yvonne McDermott

The Challenge of Human Rights takes a detailed and exploratory approach to topics across the field of human rights, and seeks to map a path for future research and policy development.
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Chapter 11: Exploitation Rebranded: How International Law Sold Slavery as Forced Labour

Nicholas McGeehan


Nicholas McGeehan The prohibition of slavery was arguably the first human right which prompted action from a global community of states. This paper posits that the European colonial powers of the time were less concerned with abolishing slavery than they were with maintaining and developing their economic interests in Africa, a situation which led to a normative and institutional fracturing of slavery, as first forced labour and then servitude appeared in international law as practices related to, but somehow distinct from, slavery. It furthermore considers that the failure of human rights law to question the integrity of a framework it adopted, rather than designed, is to a large extent responsible for slavery’s marginalization in the human rights discourse. Part 1 addresses the human rights law framework on slavery, servitude and forced labour and highlights the extent of the confusion over the exact nature of those practices, with reference to recent case law from the European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (henceforth ECtHR and ICTY). Part 2 examines the position that slavery relates exclusively to ownership, a position which to a large extent justifies the separate existence of forced labour and servitude. Part three explores the background to the drafting of the international treaties which facilitated the separation of slavery and forced labour. Essentially, this is a study of how personalities and politics combined to shape the international lawmaking process which in turn influenced the treatment of slavery within human rights law. 219...

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