United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty

By amending its international slavery treaty, or convention, the United Nations expanded its definition of slavery and prohibited certain kinds of exploitation designated as similar to slavery.

Summary of Event

The U.N. Charter of 1945 did not mention slavery, even though the practice of owning other humans as property continued to exist in countries such as Ethiopia, Liberia, and Saudi Arabia. Slave traders from Saudi Arabia were reportedly sending emissaries to Nigeria, then a British colony, to offer temporary employment to Africans as household servants. Investigators found that hundreds of slaves were transported to the Persian Gulf every year. The agents told the Africans that they would get free passage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam, in return for two years’ service; when the victims got to Saudi Arabia, they were arrested for entering the country without visas and handed over by the police to slave traders. United Nations;human trafficking
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Slavery;U.N. conventions
Geneva Conference of Plenipotentiaries and the Proposal for a Limited International Regime Against the Slave Trade (1956)
[kw]United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty (Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956)
[kw]Slavery Treaty, United Nations Amends Its International (Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956)
[kw]Treaty, United Nations Amends Its International Slavery (Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956)
United Nations;human trafficking
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Slavery;U.N. conventions
Geneva Conference of Plenipotentiaries and the Proposal for a Limited International Regime Against the Slave Trade (1956)
[g]North America;Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956: United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty[04260]
[g]Europe;Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956: United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty[04260]
[g]Switzerland;Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956: United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty[04260]
[g]United States;Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956: United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty[04260]
[c]Human rights;Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956: United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty[04260]
[c]United Nations;Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956: United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty[04260]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956: United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty[04260]
[c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 23, 1953-Sept. 4, 1956: United Nations Amends Its International Slavery Treaty[04260]
Hammarskjöld, Dag
Engen, Hans
Awad, Muhamed

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was adopted by the United Nations; the declaration prohibited “slavery and the slave trade” in all forms among member nations. Enforcement powers were lacking, though, and slavery continued to be a problem in many areas of the world. In 1950, the United Nations created an ad hoc committee on slavery with authority to send questionnaires to all states asking them to report on customs and practices “resembling slavery.” The committee, made up of representatives from Chile, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, met twice over a two-year period and sent its questionnaires to all states.

Before the committee could collate the responses, the General Assembly heard an angry attack on the ad hoc committee by the delegate from Peru, a country accused by a Roman Catholic relief agency of allowing child slavery in rural areas and coal mines. The Peruvian ambassador tried to stop the investigation, claiming that the charges against his country were unreliable and irresponsible propaganda. His appeal to stop the investigation failed to win a majority.

The narrow margin of victory in the General Assembly for those favoring continuation of the survey, 21-17, with 16 abstentions, showed that many nations were embarrassed by allegations of exploitation within their borders and wished to drop the issue. The four members of the committee had great difficulty in agreeing upon a course of action. Eventually, they received sixty-four replies to the questionnaire; twelve nations did not respond to the survey. Despite this problem, the committee’s report concluded that slavery, “even in its crudest forms,” still existed in the world and that the United Nations had to take a stand against it. The committee also recommended that the United Nations expand the definition of slavery to include new terms of exploitation.

The ad hoc committee recommended that the United Nations adopt the view of the League of Nations League of Nations , which in 1926 had defined slavery as “ownership of another human being” and called for its abolition. That agreement, ratified by forty-five states, did not achieve its goal. So many violations were reported that in 1931 the League of Nations created a committee of experts on the slavery question. This committee called for establishing a standing advisory committee that could follow up on complaints and issue punishments for violations of the 1926 convention. The full league created a seven-member agency that would present reports on the extent of exploitation and enforce the 1926 agreement. This committee met several times in the 1930’s but had little influence on the forced-labor systems emerging in Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. The fight against slavery would not be renewed until after World War II, when the United Nations dealt with the issue.

After the ad hoc committee studied the question for two years, it reported its findings. The General Assembly asked Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld to draft a treaty expanding on the 1926 convention. Hammarskjöld recommended that debt bondage, exploitation of women through forced marriages, and the sale of children for adoption be added to the definition of slavery. He appointed Hans Engen of Norway to prepare a summary.

Engen’s survey urged the creation of a permanent committee of experts and a supplementary convention, or treaty, to add the new categories of slavery to the earlier definition. Engen said that all governments should adopt policies to end slavery quickly but without creating social disorder. This illustrated a major problem: Most states in which forms of slavery existed were Islamic, and a means would have to he found to free slaves although the practices resembling slavery had been ordained by religious leaders and royal authorities. To prevent great social disruption, the United Nations voted to delay action on new categories. It ratified the 1926 convention on October 23, 1953, and called for a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, to take up Engen’s proposal for expanded controls.

The supplementary convention on slavery, officially titled the Geneva Conference of Plenipotentiaries and the Proposal for a Limited International Regime Against the Slave Trade, opened in the late summer of 1956. Delegates from ten nations debated a draft proposal submitted by the United Kingdom and made several significant changes weakening the enforcement powers of the United Nations, but the conference’s essential decisions expanded the forms of labor defined as slavery.

The 1926 and 1953 conventions had a limited view of slavery, covering only “chattel slavery,” meaning ownership of another human being. Three new practices similar to slavery were defined: debt bondage, in which a person works without wages until a debt is repaid, a condition prevalent in India; serfdom, interpreted as bound service to a master on land a servant does not own and cannot move away from without permission of the landlord, a condition especially common in South American countries such as Colombia and Peru: and the selling of women into marriage without their consent and the selling or giving of children under eighteen to another person for exploitation.

To end Islamic practices victimizing women, the delegates agreed that governments would set “suitable minimum ages” for marriage and encourage couples to marry in the presence of a civil or religious authority. The goal was to assure that Muslim girls could not be married without their consent, an age-old practice that now violated an international treaty.

The supplementary convention declared that violations of these provisions should be made a criminal offense under the laws of each nation. The draft called for international control of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and parts of the Indian Ocean, the last areas of the world where chattel slavery still existed. Any slave-carrying vessel found in these zones would he considered a pirate ship, and the courts of the capturing nation would try the suspected slave traders and administer punishment. Islamic delegates found this idea unacceptable and forced a change. In the final protocol, nations themselves were called upon to prevent ships and aircraft carrying their flag from transporting slaves to other states. Slave traders would be tried in the courts of their homelands, a provision that severely weakened the final document.

Another amendment calling for abolition of all forms of slavery “as soon as possible” was also rejected by the delegates. Instead, the final agreement called upon all parties to set suitable deadlines for ending slavery-like practices but left the exact time to individual states. Otherwise, delegates argued, too much “disorganization” would result. All countries were asked to make it a criminal offense to “induce” human beings to give themselves or anybody dependent upon them into any type of “servile status.” A final paragraph made it a crime to mutilate, brand, or mark another person as a punishment or as a sign of ownership or “for any other reason.”

On September 4, 1956, thirty-one members of the United Nations signed the convention. The United States, however, refused to ratify the new regulations, saying that it preferred to deal with the problem of slavery through public debate and education in the nations affected instead of interfering in their domestic affairs.


The slavery convention led to major changes in nations such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Muscat, Oman, and other Persian Gulf states, where an estimated one-half million slaves were said to be held in 1956. In Saudi Arabia, where only a year earlier three fugitive slaves who had escaped from King Saud’s household were beheaded, steps were begun to make chattel slavery illegal, a process finished in 1962. As late as 1966, however, the U.N. Economic and Social Council debated enforcement policy over the objections of Peru, India, and Iran. Arguments in favor of more vigorous policing of abuses made little headway. Instead, council members voted to classify South Africa’s system of apartheid, under which blacks were totally segregated and had no political rights, as a “slave-like practice.” The council handed responsibility for overseeing the convention to the Commission on Human Rights Commission on Human Rights, U.N.
Human rights;commissions .

In 1967, the commission created a subcommission on slavery and authorized a new study to be headed by Muhamed Awad of Egypt. Awad presented his report to the commission and made two proposals: That a new convention further redefine the meaning of the term “slavery” and that slavery be fought on a regional basis. The London-based Anti-Slavery Society found that slavery existed in many developing nations.

In Southeast Asia and India, millions of human beings lived in debt bondage, while in Peru thousands of families had been forced into serfdom by poverty and hunger. In Colombia, children under age ten worked seventy-hour weeks in coal mines, and seven-year-old girls were sold by desperately poor parents into domestic service in the homes of rich landlords. In Brazil, seven-year-old children worked twelve-hour days in sugarcane fields, and indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin were being exterminated by the thousands in a deliberate campaign to get them out of the way of “progress.” In Paraguay, the Ache Indians slowly were being decimated by government forces in the northern desert because they too obstructed economic development.

Not all such tragedies took place in developing nations. In Europe, children were being exploited in violation of the 1956 convention. In Spain, young children worked in shoe factories where they used toxic glues to attach soles, and in southern Italy thousands of agricultural laborers were under the age of ten. Exploitation of women existed in Thailand and Nepal, where the selling of teenage girls into prostitution was an important part of the rural economy. In Africa, young girls still faced genital mutilation in accord with traditional religious rites, while in Mauritania, apparently the last country in the world to outlaw the practice, slavery was legal until 1980.

Slavery is known to be a major problem in the Sudan and remains a major feature of a long civil war there that intensified in the Darfur region in 2002. Trafficking in women and children was common into the first decade of the twenty-first century, and many women continue to be exploited and held in slavelike conditions in Southeast Asia and even in Europe. Children also are vulnerable to slavelike exploitation in many parts of the world.

Beginning in 1975, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on Slavery Working Group of Experts on Slavery, U.N. met yearly in Geneva and continued to gather proof and hear reports on the recognized forms of slavery that still existed. It had little power except public exposure of illegal activity. The experts recognized slavery as chattel slavery, exploitation of women, debt bondage, and serfdom. All forms were to be found somewhere in the world, though the oldest type, direct ownership of another human being, was on the verge of extinction. Because of that step, the international movement against slavery was nearing an important victory, though exploitation of women and children has continued unabated. United Nations;human trafficking
Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations
Slavery;U.N. conventions
Geneva Conference of Plenipotentiaries and the Proposal for a Limited International Regime Against the Slave Trade (1956)

Further Reading

  • Asher, Robert E., and Walter M. Kotschnig. The United Nations and Promotion of the General Welfare. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1957. An account of the background and proceedings of the antislavery conventions held by the United Nations. Contains a lengthy account of the 1926, 1953, and 1956 decisions. An unbiased, dispassionate account of U.N. efforts in all areas of human rights and welfare. A useful summary of the new categories of slavery added in the 1956 supplementary convention. Index, bibliography.
  • Cordier, Andrew W., and Wilder Foote, eds. Dag Hammarskjöld: Public Papers of Secretaries-General of the United Nations, 1956-1957. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973. Contains the secretary-general’s views of the slavery convention and supplement. Provides little background information on the issue.
  • Eagleton, Clyde, and Richard N. Swift, eds. Annual Review of United Nations Affairs, 1955-1956. New York: New York University Press, 1957. A shorter, more concise account of the Geneva meeting. Provides a useful overview of other U.N. involvement in human rights. Prior editions of the series carry brief summaries of investigations conducted in the early 1950’s. Bibliography, index.
  • Miers, Suzanne. Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Pattern. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2003. A comprehensive history of the global patterns of slavery in the twentieth century. Includes discussion of the United Nations’ response to slavery as well as antislavery movements around the world.
  • Sawyer, Roger. Slavery in the Twentieth Century. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. An extensive survey of slavery in the modern world and a critical view of customs and traditions that lead to the exploitation of women and children. Also a fervent call for an immediate prohibition of such practices. Index, bibliography.
  • Winks, Robin W. Slavery, a Comparative Perspective: Readings on Slavery from Ancient Times to the Present. New York: New York University Press, 1972. Informative and useful articles on slavery throughout human history. Leading experts on every period present brief accurate accounts of the rise and fall of slave systems in every area of the world. Two essays on slavery in the twentieth century. Index, bibliography.

Legal Slavery Ends in Ethiopia

United Nations Convention Suppressing Human Trafficking Is Adopted

European Convention on Human Rights Is Signed

United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved

Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General

United Nations Adopts the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Is Created

United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child

United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Is Adopted

United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women

Proclamation of Tehran Sets Human Rights Goals