The words of article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not be more definitive: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." Yet, as with so many other human rights issues, we are falling lamentably short of the Declaration's standard. Although slavery was one of the first human rights issues to arouse widespread international concern, in the closing years of the twentieth century slavery-like practices remain a grave and persistent global problem.
When we think of slavery today, we think not only of traditional slavery and the slave trade, but also of such human rights violations as bonded labour, trafficking in women and the forced conscription of children into military service. These and similar abuses are often clandestine, making it difficult to have a clear picture of the scale of the problem, let alone to uncover, punish or eliminate it. Moreover, the victims are generally from the poorest and most vulnerable social groups, meaning that fear and the need to survive serve as powerful inhibitors on their willingness to speak out. Still, there is enough evidence to show that violations are vast and widespread.
Governments bear the primary responsibility for eradicating contemporary forms of slavery. Long experience has shown, however, that official action alone is not enough, leaving ample room for civil society to do what it does best: pressing governments to pass and enforce legislation; conducting consumer campaigns where appropriate; and raising public awareness. The United Nations, for its part, under various international instruments, offers mechanisms for monitoring State compliance and channels for receiving complaints of violations. In addition, many United Nations specialized agencies are engaged in the struggle.
In this year in which we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we often speak about the need for greater tolerance. But slavery must not be tolerated. Let us, on this International Day, resolve to build societies in which slavery, in all its modern or age-old manifestations, is no longer tolerated.
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