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Legal strategies to fight slavery

Our first sector initiative is on strengthening national and international legal tools to fight slavery. While slavery is illegal under international law and in every country, this is not reflected in state practice. Too often governments, officials and businesses ignore their obligations to stamp it out.

We will identify legal approaches that encourage these actors to live up to their responsibility to end slavery, and help institutionalise the norm against slavery. We have three projects under this initiative – the first focused on the role of strategic litigation in ending modern slavery, the second on international justice mechanisms, and the third on human rights litigation in West Africa. A fourth initiative to map and analyse legal interventions in India has been completed.


The Freedom Fund has launched a project with the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Law Center (HT Pro Bono) to examine the potential for strategic litigation to combat trafficking and modern-day slavery, expand the strategic litigation research base, and build a global strategic litigation network. Specifically, HT Pro Bono will work closely with the Freedom Fund to:

  • Collaborate with our partners to develop materials exploring the possible use of anti-corruption statutes to combat human trafficking;
  • Facilitate further discussions with funders interested in strategic litigation;
  • Expand discussions of strategic litigation beyond Western countries;
  • Track and map supply chain litigation globally.

Following a convening of leading human rights lawyers, advocates and litigators from around the world in May 2015, in December that year we launched a joint report titled “Ending Impunity, Securing Justice: Using strategic litigation to combat modern-day slavery and human trafficking”. Drawing on insights gleaned at the convening, the reports provides a roadmap to create an international strategic litigation network to punish and deter human traffickers.

Potential investments
Four key investments would propel global strategic litigation efforts forward, allowing expert lawyers to bring the right cases, in the right courts.

  • First, additional expert meetings to bring litigators and partners together would provide opportunities for key individuals to build relationships and share innovative strategies. In light of confidentiality and security concerns, it is best for these meetings to occur face-to-face in neutral locations.
  • Second, investment in NGO intermediary partners would support the legal training essential to effective litigation. The key focus of these regional organisations would be to train local NGOs to provide litigation support for local and international lawyers. They would also provide support in cases before the courts, building long-term relationships with local partners and providing expert guidance on litigation rules. In some cases, the organisations may serve as co-counsel.
  • Third, investment in a secure platform for communication among lawyers would allow them to share documents and materials. Current listservs are clunky and insecure. Creating a dedicated, invitation-only platform would promote open communication, ensure security, and enhance litigation outcomes.
  • Finally, working with litigators and NGO partners to develop an evaluation and monitoring plan would educate all parties on expectations and goals. The creation of key benchmarks will also help shift litigation away from the current opportunistic model and deliver a framework for litigation to become truly strategic.


In theory, contemporary international law takes a strong stand against slavery. There are no circumstances under which slavery is permitted. In fact, numerous treaties criminalise slavery and related practices. And in some cases, slavery can be – and has been – prosecuted as a crime against humanity in the International Criminal Court. Yet some 36 million people, worldwide, live in slavery, and the crime generates $150 billion in illegal profits each year. Clearly there is a significant gap between the theoretical stance of contemporary international law and the practical enforcement of its norms, which has real and tragic consequences.

This project brings together diverse institutional partners to continue to develop expert legal and policy analysis identifying why this gap exists, and to recommend steps that may be taken to close it. In 2015 we convened a research and policy formulation process, involving key legal experts and international organisations, to determine how international criminal norms, institutions and practice might make a more effective contribution to eradicating modern slavery. In December 2015, together with United Nations University, we released a report on the potential role for international criminal justice in combatting modern slavery, drawing on an analysis of both normative development and institutional practice. In Spring 2016 the Journal of International Criminal Justice will publish an entire issue devoted to modern slavery.


Haratines in Mauritania are descendants of slaves of the Arab-Berber elites, and their ‘slave’ status is passed down from mother to child. The Haratine are systematically deprived of their respect, dignity, and rights and oppressed by an historic system of slavery. Many remain in slavery today and live under the direct control of their ‘masters’.

Although Mauritania is signatory to many international agreements including the International convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and the International covenant on civil and political rights, this has had scant impact on the lives of Haratine communities.

The Freedom Fund is working with Anti-Slavery International (ASI) and Minority Rights Group International (MRGI) to improve life for the Haratine. ASI is working with SOS-Esclaves, a Mauritanian NGO, to build their capacity to help people of slave descent by providing legal support. MRGI is supporting Mauritanian organisations working with and on behalf of the Haratine in their efforts to end impunity around slavery. The Freedom Fund is also reviewing the potential for human rights litigation and partnerships with local organisations in Niger.


The Freedom Fund partnered with the Thomson Reuters Foundation to map and analyse the legal options and tools available in India to advance the fight against slavery; and identify where and how additional funding could be most effectively invested in supporting legal interventions designed to have the maximum impact in reducing slavery.

The report was announced at the TrustWomen Conference in London in November 2014 before an audience of anti-slavery activists and potential investors, and launched in March 2015. The Executive Summary can be read here and the full report is available here. Research findings have been made available to the anti-slavery sector and shared with Freedom Fund partners in India as they continue working to improve the effectiveness of their legal interventions.