Slavery And Serfdom – A Violation Of Human Rights


Slavery was, in a very real sense, the first international human rights issue to come to the fore. It led to the adoption of the first human rights laws and to the creation of the first human rights non-governmental organization. And yet despite the efforts of the international community to combat this abhorrent practice, it is still widely prevalent in all its insidious forms, old and new.

Kofi Annan

Human rights are rights that all people have, regardless of their gender, nationality, residence, sex, race, faith, color, or other classifications. As a result, human rights are non-discriminatory, ensuring that everyone is entitled to them and cannot be denied, anyone. Of course, while all humans are entitled to human rights, not everyone experiences them in the same way across the world. Many governments and individuals disregard human rights and take advantage of others.

It might seem incredible today, but just 200 years ago, many people in Europe, Africa, and the Americas saw nothing wrong with the idea of one human being owning another. There were no safeguards in place for the ‘owned’ or ‘slave.’ Or how people benefited from basic necessities including food, shelter, and clothes while working as a serf in order to earn a living and enjoy these benefits as a privilege.

What is Slavery?

The United Nations concept of slavery, which is still used in international law says that ‘Slavery is the status or state of an individual over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised,‘ according to the 1926 meaning contained in Article 1(1) of the Slavery Convention. Slavery is a condition in which one person is enslaved by another. A slave was regarded as property, or chattel, by law, and was denied many of the rights that free people enjoyed. Slavery describes a situation in which people are governed by others who determine where they live and what they do. Slavery has occurred in some instances and in most places throughout history. Slaves from the ancient Greeks, Romans, Incas, and Aztecs were present.

It is to be owned by another human to be a slave. A slave is a property-classified human being that is made to labor for nothing. An enslaved person is a person who was born to be a slave. Instead of the term slave, this terminology is also used to refer to the person and his experiences and to avert the use of stigmatizing language.

Slavery was a type of dependent labor performed by a non-family member. The slave lost his personal freedom and the ability to fly around the world as he pleased. His ability to make choices about his career and sexual relationships was also limited. Slavery was often involuntary, although there were exceptions. Even if not all of these characterizations applied to a slave in the most restrictive ways, the slave system is described as “mild” in that location; if nearly all of them did, the slave system is described as “extreme”

What is Serfdom?

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Serfdom has been categorized as a form of slavery since the first discussions preceding the adoption of the Slavery Convention of 1926. In its final report to the League of Nations, the Temporary Slavery Commission regarded serfdom as the equivalent of “predial slavery”, that is to say, the use of slaves on farms or plantations for agricultural production. The requirement contained in the Slavery Convention of 1926, “to bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms,” consequently applies to serfdom as well as slavery.

The term “serfdom” was meant to apply to a variety of activities recorded in Latin American countries and more broadly referred to as “peonage,” according to records of discussions held at the UN and the ILO prior to the adoption of the Supplementary Convention in 1956. Those practices, which arose in the context of conquest, subjugation, and seizure of indigenous peoples’ lands, involved a landowner granting a piece of land to an individual “serf” or “peon” in exchange for specific services, such as –

  • providing the landowner with a share of the crop at harvest (“sharecropping”),
  • working for the landowner, or
  • doing other work. In each case, it is the inability of the individual in serf status to leave that status that is considered a form of servitude, not the provision of labor in exchange for access to the property.

Serfdom is a condition in which a farmer who was hired to farm the land on a rent basis was forced to live on an inherited plot of land and to obey his landowner’s commands. This disease was most common in medieval Europe. The vast majority of serfs in medieval Europe made their living by cultivating a plot of land owned by a landowner. The landowner received his own food and clothing as a result of the serfs’ fruitful efforts and hard work. The landowner had to be given a significant portion of the grain grown on his land by the serf. He could also ask the serf to farm the portion of the lord’s property that was not occupied by other tenants (known as Demesne land). Only his master’s grain mills were permitted to be used by the servant.

What types Of Slavery exist today?

  • Bonded Labour
    Bonded labor is a term that refers to workers who are required to work as a way of repaying a loan or money provided in advance.
  • Forced Labour
    Those who are unlawfully recruited by states, political parties, or private individuals and forced to work, often under duress.
  • Commercial Sexual Exploitation
    Commercial Sexual Exploitation is a form of sexual exploitation that is used for profit. Prostitution, human trafficking, and pornography are all ways in which women and children are abused. They are often abducted, purchased, or coerced into sexual slavery.
  • Child Labour
    Slavery, trafficking, forced labor, child soldiering, commercial sexual abuse, and children used for illegal activities that damage their health or morals are all examples of child labor.
  • Human Trafficking
    This entails the forced or deceptive transport and/or exchange of humans, typically women and children, for monetary benefit. Migrant girls and women are often duped and coerced into domestic work or prostitution.
  • Early or Compulsory Marriage
    Women and girls are coerced into marriage against their will, resulting in a life of servitude and sometimes physical abuse.
  • Traditional or ‘Chattel’ Slavery
    One person assumes complete legal ownership over another. Chattel slavery is the only type where the slave is considered the legal property of the slaveholder, and it exists today primarily in Mauritania and other parts of Northern Africa. (Slavery is technically illegal in these countries, but law enforcement there often returns escaped slaves to their slaveholders based on the asserted ownership just as if the practice was legal.) This is the type of slavery that existed in the American South.
  • Modern Slavery
    Modern slavery refers to circumstances of exploitation from which an individual is unable to flee due to threats, intimidation, coercion, and power abuse or deception. They may be kept in debt on fishing vessels, forced to work as domestic servants against their will, or imprisoned in brothels.
    Slaves used to be a long-term investment, but slaveholders had to strike a balance between the need for coercion to manage the slave and the possibility of injury, which would decrease income. Slaves are now inexpensive and disposable. Sick, disabled, frail, and unprofitable people are thrown out and quickly substituted. Slavery is easily imposed and fooled upon the poor, uneducated, women, children, and oppressed people who are stuck in poverty and powerlessness.

Slavery and Serfdom is a violation of Human Rights

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Slavery, forced labor, and human trafficking are all examples of human rights abuses because they deprive people of their inherent rights. Slavery is specifically included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 4: “No one shall be kept in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be forbidden in all forms.” NO TORTURE IN ARTICLE 5 “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” international treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), which states that “no one shall be kept in slavery or servitude;” and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), which recognizes the right to work as well as the right to only an adequate standard of living.

Slavers and human traffickers commit grave violations of human rights by claiming ownership, labor, and/or the humanity of another person.

The prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or another opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status;

  • The right to life;
  • The right to liberty and security;
  • The right not to be submitted to slavery, servitude, forced labor, or bonded labor;
  • The right not to be subjected to torture and/or cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment;
  • The right to be free from gendered violence;
  • The right to freedom of association;
  • The right to freedom of movement;
  • The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health;
  • The right to just and favorable conditions of work;
  • The right to an adequate standard of living;
  • The right to social security; and
  • The right of children to special protection.

The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and personal protection,” and “No one shall be tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Human Rights of Girls and Women

Many organizations and governments around the world are working to improve women’s and girls’ lives. According to the International Labour Organization, 11.4 million women and girls are victims of various types of forced labor, such as debt slavery, trafficking, and forced prostitution. It is important for world leaders to concentrate on reducing women and girls’ abuse of forced labor, trafficking, and slavery as they work to improve the status of women and girls.

  • Women and girls who are enslaved or trafficked are denied access to services that promote gender equality and growth.
  • Many trafficked and enslaved women and girls do not go to school. These women and girls are frequently illiterate.
  • Sexual abuse is common among trafficked and enslaved women and girls, whether they are coerced into prostitution, forced marriage, or forced physical labor?
  • Domestic violence affects trafficked and enslaved women and children.
  • Women and girls who have been trafficked or enslaved do not have access to reproductive and maternal health care. Many early births, forced abortions, and HIV, and other diseases are the result of their exploitation’s physical and sexual violence.
  • Women and girls who have been trafficked or enslaved do not have access to healthcare.
  • Women and girls who have been trafficked or enslaved also suffer from severe malnutrition.
  • Women and girls who have been trafficked or kidnapped do not have access to anti-poverty services, microloans, or other economic development projects, leaving them reliant on their exploiters.

Legal Framework

League of Nations

Established in 1919, the League of Nations was the first international organization to put together new conventions governing modern slavery. It was an international body that was responsible for taking measures toward the abolition of slavery, as well as mediation, disarmament, and the prevention of war in the pursuit of global welfare. It offered a basic description of slavery that many states used as a model. Importantly, the League of Nations was responsible for the first set of international treaties addressing slavery. Following the conclusions of the Temporary Slave Commission, these conventions were approved.

The 1926 Slavery Convention

The Slavery Convention of 1926 defined a definition of contemporary slavery, as well as a framework for states to assess slavery within their borders. Slavery, according to the dictionary, is described as a situation in which one person is completely controlled by another, as if that person were their property. The 1926 Convention’s main concern, in addition to a basic definition of contemporary slavery, was to keep track of attempts to abolish it.

The United Nations (UN)

In 1945, the United Nations was created as the League of Nations’ successor. Article Four required the abolition of all forms of slavery three years after it was established. The United Nations was not allowed to control issues of contemporary slavery until the Slavery Convention of 1953. The Slavery Convention of 1953 built on the 1926 concept of slavery by requiring international collaboration in resolving the economic and social factors that enabled the nature of modern slavery.

Supplementary Convention of 1956

The Slavery Convention of 1953 was preceded by additional conventions. These conventions led to worldwide efforts to enforce the eradication of all forms of slavery. Established in Geneva in 1956, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery expanded the definition of contemporary slavery to include debt bondage, serfdom, the selling of women by their families for marriage, certain forms of abuse of women, and the buying and selling of children for labor or prostitution.

United Nations Working Group on Slavery

The Working Group was established in order to see that the agreements of the Conventions were carried out. In addition, the Working Group was responsible for receiving information on slavery from states, along with researching and monitoring the existence of slavery globally. It continues to expand ways of addressing contemporary slavery by building upon present information through continual documentation, interviews, and work conducted by other organizations.

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)

It evaluated Commonwealth countries’ progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (Target 8.7) of ending forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor by 2030, as promised in 2018. Around 40% of the world’s population is enslaved in modern slavery conditions, according to Commonwealth countries. In the Commonwealth nations, it is estimated that one in every 150 people is a victim of modern slavery. It was discovered that Commonwealth countries had made no progress toward their pledge to end modern slavery and have failed to take steps to do so by 2030.

Forced marriage was illegal in one-third of Commonwealth nations, though commercial sexual abuse of children was not. Gaps in victim assistance services have been identified in all Commonwealth countries. One-third of the Commonwealth countries had criminalized forced marriage, while 23 had not criminalized commercial sexual exploitation of children. All Commonwealth countries report gaps in victim assistance programs.

India specific Outcome

In terms of teamwork, India has performed the worst. To deal with modern-day slavery, it lacks a central coordinating body and a National Action Plan. One-third of all child brides in the world are from India.

India has not ratified the International Labour Organization’s 2011 Domestic Workers Convention or the 2014 Forced Labour Protocol, as had all other Commonwealth countries in Asia.

The 2014 Forced Labour Protocol requires state parties to provide victims of forced labor with security and adequate remedies, including compensation, as well as to prosecute those who perpetrate forced labor. It also requires state parties to adopt a national policy and plan of action for the successful and long-term repression of forced or compulsory labor.

Steps taken by India to prevent Slavery and Serfdom

Constitutional Provisions

  • The Right to Life and Personal Liberty are covered in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
  • Forced labor is prohibited by Article 23 of the Constitution.
  • Article 24 forbids the recruitment of minors (under the age of fourteen) in factories and other workplaces.
  • Article 39 requires the state to ensure the health and strength of employees, both men, and women, as well as to ensure that children’s tender ages are not exploited and that people are not compelled to engage in occupations that are unsuitable for their age or strength due to economic necessity.
  • Article 42 requires the state to make provisions for just and humane working practices as well as maternity leave.

Legal Provisions


People can see that serfdom violates the natural rights of human beings by attributing old servitude practices to the above principles. A group of serf owners, headed by the Dalai Lama, was at the helm of this evil scheme, determined to keep the structure in place indefinitely. No one, however, has the power to alter the course of history. Colonial serfdom and slavery were doomed to extinction as they hindered productivity, violated civil rights, and distorted human life.

Several states have taken measures in recent years to end slavery and free slaves. The British parliament outlawed the slave trade on British ships in 1807. Slavery was abolished in Haiti in 1803, followed by Brazil and Cuba in 1888, to name a few. In 1862, the United States of America was created. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Declaration, which freed all slaves in the Confederate States of America, following a rebellion by slave owners in some southern states. The declaration is remembered as a watershed moment in the history of the global anti-slavery movement.

The abolition of slavery was a major step forward in the global development of human rights. People all over the world have every reason to commemorate the abolition of serfdom. It brings people’s attention to what is right and wrong, bad and good, and allows them to mourn those who have died as a result of this evil scheme.

Editor’s Note
The author tries to convey the meaning of slavery in a true and broad sense, both in the past and the present context. The various forms of slavery including serfdom have been specifically highlighted. The article carefully highlights what all rights are violated as a result of slavery and serfdom and the harms associated with the same. There has also been a careful reference to the legal provisions in India as well as in the International arena which work against the evil of slavery. 

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