The Convention 6: Freedom from servitude

One of the Axis powers’ most memorable practices during WW2 was the use of slave labour. From the Nazi labour camps to the forced labour of Japanese POWs slavery was rife. Many were simply worked to death. This is the background to article 4, the freedom from slavery and servitude.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that slavery has been eradicated in Europe or even here in the UK. What it does mean is that slavery is unlawful and that forcing another person into slavery is a serious criminal offence.

Josef Fritzl
Josef Fritzl
It is disturbing though to consider the amount of human trafficking and subsequent sexual slavery that comes to light in and between European states. Stories of ‘baby farms’ where kidnapped girls are impregnated and then robbed of their offspring for sale to childless couples ‘no questions asked’ are chilling and yet common enough that they cannot be ignored. Trafficked women in brothels that seem more like prisons seem to have very limited choices and in many cases can only really be described as sex slaves. Equally disturbing are the occasional examples of kidnapped women spending years or even decades as the unwilling playthings of their captors. Cases such as that of Josef Fritzl who imprisoned and enslaved his daughter, Elisabeth in a cellar for 24 years.

Then we see other, less dramatic but no less serious forms of slavery from migrant workers whose passports are removed to illegal immigrants forced to work long hours for little or no wages and kept in secret, overcrowded accommodation with no real means of escape. Piece workers who receive their meagre wages in cash without the protection of ‘above board’ employment and the benefit of a proper contract in a regulated workplace. These are all forms of slavery and servitude and they are all outlawed by the ECHR.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decided in the case of Siliadin vs France that France (and all other European countries) had an obligation to pass laws making it illegal to keep another person as a slave. As a result several European countries enacted such a law. This, along with other offences such as false imprisonment and manslaughter is why Joseph Fritzl, mentioned above, will spend the rest of his life in prison. Imprisoning, enslaving and raping his daughter was and still is a criminal offence in Austria.

In the United Kingdom subjecting another person or persons to slavery was made a criminal offence in section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act (2009). Better late than never! The offence of holding another person in ‘slavery, servitude or forced, compulsory labour’ is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Article 4 may have started because of the labour camps and ghettos of the second world war but it helps a lot more people in a lot more situations than that.

About ‘The Convention’

This series of posts first appeared on Stuart’s blog in June 2011. It is not intended to be a comprehensive or even particularly authoritative reference guide to the ECHR. Rather it is a brief introduction to a much larger and infinitely more fascinating subject. You can download the entire series in PDF format here:

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