Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum

Volume 75, Issue 5, 1287-1334

In many countries today, slavery and the slave trade continue with impunity. International human rights law prohibits both abuses, but states are rarely held accountable and people who are enslaved or slave traded rarely receive redress. This Article offers a novel account of why international human rights law advocacy neglects slavery and the slave trade. Specifically, this Article demonstrates that the abolition of the Transatlantic and East African slave trades was achieved through a legal framework that marginalized the human rights of enslaved persons while consolidating empire. In the wake of World War II, prohibitions on slavery and the slave trade were codified in human rights law, but advocates turned to enforcement under international criminal law, which focuses on individual perpetrators and can paradoxically entrench the structures that perpetuate slavery and the slave trade.

In recent decades, the United States has doubled down on these imperial interventionist strategies, using global power and influence to rebrand human trafficking as “modern slavery” and focusing enforcement on policing international borders while prosecuting individual perpetrators under domestic and transnational criminal law. This Article therefore argues that human rights advocates should press international legal institutions to go beyond combatting human trafficking crimes and to focus additionally on state accountability for wrongs done to the human beings still exploited, enslaved, and slave traded today. Only then can the prohibitions of slavery and the slave trade begin to unlock their emancipatory potential.