Andrew Forrest of Walk Free Foundation and Lord Carlile of Berriew argue that the UK leadership on tackling human rights abuse will be critical over the next two years

Fifty-three nations. A combined population of 2.4 billion. A collective GDP of US$10.4 trillion. Together the Commonwealth is a powerhouse of human potential and capital.

Yet there is one scourge that exists inside the borders of every Commonwealth country: modern slavery.

Research tells us that on any given day in 2016, 40.3 million people globally were living in modern slavery – in debt bondage on fishing boats, against their will as domestic servants, or trapped in brothels by threats of violence.

The UK is a world leader in tackling this area, recently doubling aid spent combatting modern slavery to £150 million. Its Modern Slavery Act of 2015 is looked to as a model for other nations, and it is pleasing to see that Australia will soon follow suit, with the creation of an equivalent act this year.

Commonwealth flags line London's Pall Mall ahead of the summit. (Credit: Dominic Dudley/Shutterstock)

But while Commonwealth members – large, small, rich and poor – have all declared modern slavery illegal, it continues to exist on a shocking and unacceptable scale. More needs to be done, faster.

Last month, the Walk Free Foundation released a report Towards a Common Future: Achieving SDG 8.7 which delved deep into how Commonwealth governments are responding to modern slavery. Built upon data, to be released later this year in the 2018 Global Slavery Index, Walk Free is building a robust knowledge base to inform action, drive legislative change in key countries and harness the power of business to bring new resources to this issue.

In 2014, the International Labour Organization estimated that forced labour generated annual profits of US$150 billion

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) launched its report Creating an Effective Coalition to Achieve SDG 8.7, last month, with recommendations for change that build on its 30 years of tireless work to achieve the practical realisation of human rights for all Commonwealth citizens.

In a unprecedented move, the two co-ordinated reports were released at the Commonwealth Heads of Goverment Meeting (CHOGM) held in London last month. Focused specifically on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7 – which calls on governments to take immediate and effective measures to end forced labour, modern slavery, and human trafficking, as well as child labour in all its forms by 2030 – both reports found significant challenges, but also signs of positive action that can be built upon.

A young Delhi factory worker, SDG 8.7 aims to end to child labour by 2030. (Credit: Paul Prescott/Shutterstock)

Most Commonwealth countries have legislation covering all forms of exploitation under SDG 8.7 but much more can be done around implementation. For instance, just three Commonwealth countries – the United Kingdom, Cyprus and Jamaica – have ratified the Forced Labour Protocol of 2014, a legally binding landmark treaty that sets out comprehensive measures to address slavery today. And beyond the UN Trafficking Protocols, only 13 nations have criminalised forced marriage – which disproportionately affects women and girls.

In 2014, the International Labour Organization estimated that forced labour generated annual profits of US$150 billion, and actions to engage with business – whose supply chains can house whole networks of vulnerable people if left unchecked – have been insufficient to date.

India has reduced child marriage by nearly half by increasing education opportunities for girls and raising awareness

This is not a criticism – it is a call to action. For there have been successes – UNICEF statistics from earlier this year revealing that India had reduced child marriage by nearly half by increasing education opportunities for girls and raising awareness of the issue.

But as a Commonwealth, we are not on track for the 2030 agenda, which is why we jointly called for the Commonwealth to leave the London summit with a commitment to help member nations end modern slavery, to implement Walk Free’s 10-point action, create the "effective coalition" called for in CHRI’s report, and form a Commonwealth Business and Government Forum.

The UK’S role as Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years will be crucial. By presenting a united front, with effective co-ordination at the highest levels of government and business, we can strike down modern slavery for good.

Andrew Forrest AO is founder and chairman of the Walk Free Foundation. Lord Carlile of Berriew OBE was formerly independent reviewer of UK terrorism legislation.  

Main picture credit: Savvapanf Photo/Shutterstock
modern slavery  Commonwealth  SDG8.7  Child labour  Walk Free Foundation  Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative  Forced Labour Protocol  forced marriage  Unicef  ILO 

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