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1. The Meaning of Modern Slavery - Definitional Challenges

Definitional disagreement in national and international law


In a reactive response to the ‘discovery’ of human trafficking in the 1990s, governments

brought in a number of anti-trafficking/anti-slavery laws, all having different definitions of the

crime being addressed.


The lack of agreement between these instruments generates a lack of conceptual clarity when

confronting activities that may or may not be considered within the wider category of



Courts have issued rulings that either set down divergent definitions or interpreted the same

definition very differently.


While international law sets out that the prohibition of slavery is

jus cogens

, various

international instruments, including UN Conventions, are in definitional disagreement.

Lack of consensus about an operational definition


Likewise, governments, policy makers, research institutions, and enforcement agencies have no

shared operational definition of this criminal activity confounding mutual effective

identification and interdiction.

Survivors voices are central yet currently marginalised in debates around definition,

measurement and post-enslavement wellbeing


We find that the voices and views of those who have been enslaved have been excluded from

the construction of both legal and operational definitions.


Slavery is first the experience of an individual person, and secondarily a relationship between at

least two people, the slave and the slaveholder.


Slavery, in its many types and settings, also exists within larger cultural, political, and social

meanings, meanings that are important to understand if we are to grasp the context of slavery

and the factors that might best be addressed to reduce its prevalence.


Slavery is a lived experience, not a single criminal ‘event’; survivors of slavery are the best

witnesses to and interpreters of that experience, their voices are critical to building useful legal

and operational definitions.


Dimensions of wellbeing include self-acceptance, personal growth, autonomy, purpose in life,

and positive relationships. We find that survivors suggest that these five dimensions are

recurring themes: their loss is a consequence of slavery, and their restoration is a focus for

survivors after enslavement.