Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader

By Kevin Bales | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
No One Shall Be Held
in Slavery or Servitude
A Critical Analysis
of International Slavery Agreements

You’d Think It Would Be Obvious …

Most historians of slavery don’t know how lucky they are. The majority of scholars concerned with slavery focus on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the legal slave trade of the period, and its aftermath. For these scholars, the historical period can be clearly demarcated by the legislative moments when the slave trade or slavery itself was abolished within states or empires. The scholar of contemporary slavery enjoys no such clarity. Slavery as a social and economic relationship has never ceased to exist during recorded history, but the form that it has taken and takes today, as well as its definition, has evolved and changed. Not surprisingly, legal definitions have often failed to keep up with this evolution. While it is true that legal slavery has been generally abolished, the public tends to believe that this means the activity of slavery has disappeared as well.

Today a renewed interest in slavery is highlighting the discrepancy and confusion of the many definitions of slavery used by international bodies, national governments, and scholars. This chapter traces the development of slavery definitions in international agreements from 1815 to the present to show how the concept of slavery has become increasingly confused. My aim is to generate a more dynamic and universal definition of contemporary slavery from theoretical models and substantive examples. I examine, in relationship to this definition, the practices defined as slavery in order to separate slavery from other similar human rights abuses. A clearer definition of contemporary slavery will allow for more effective

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