The movement to abolish the slave trade can be interpreted as the first international human rights campaign.

Why was the slave trade abolished? Back in the 1800s, slaves were quite common and very convenient. The only reason slavery was actually abolished was because people realized that the slaves’ human rights were being violated. The abolishment of the slave trade was the first case tried in an international court. After slavery was officially illegal, people began to develop actual laws for how people should treat each other. The abolition of slavery was the first successful international human rights campaign and was a big part in the progression of human rights. The central feature of human rights was to prevent another situation similar to slavery. But, this didn’t quite succeed. Although it might not seem as prominent as it used to be, slavery still happens in present times, and is surprisingly common. Current slavery has two major advantages for traffickers, slaves are much cheaper than they used to be and they are disposable. People are still trying to raise awareness for modern slavery, though. Many organizations today are working to end slavery once and for all.


Abolition of the Slave Trade


In the mid-to-late 18th century, the transatlantic slave trade was at its peak, with an estimated 80,000 Africans annually crossing the Atlantic Ocean. In total, over 12.5 million slaves were taken from Africa and moved to other countries, with the loss of approximately 2 million slaves during the ocean trip and many more upon arrival.

In the book, The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law, Jenny Martinez writes, “Within a relatively short time span, however, things began to change. In 1807, Britain became the first major seafaring country, followed shortly by the United States, to ban its subjects from participation in the slave trade. By the early 1840s, more than twenty nations—including all the Atlantic maritime powers—had signed international treaties committing to the abolition of the trade. By the late 1860s, only a few hundred slaves per year were illegally transported across the Atlantic. And by 1900, slavery itself had been outlawed in every country in the Western Hemisphere.” But why did slavery disappear? Historical evidence suggests that slavery didn’t die down on its own. Slavery was eradicated a combination of people who thought it was morally wrong and people who were motivated by economic self-interest.

Great Britain, the main advocate for the abolishment of slavery, was strongly against slavery because people started to realize that it was morally wrong. Britain persuaded other countries to abandon slavery using its international law. If a country failed to comply, Britain would coerce the country using its naval force. Britain would seize ships carrying slaves and punish the crew. Britain realized later that both military power and the international law had to be used at the same time in order to achieve the abolition of the slave trade.

Enslaved people who resisted and ex-slaves who spoke out about the horrors of slavery were key agents in the abolition of slavery. Slave revolts led by enraged slaves shocked the British government and made them see that the costs and dangers of keeping slavery in the West Indies were too high. Slaves liked Olaudah Equiano managed to buy their own freedom, talked about their horrible experiences, and helped raise awareness of the horrors of the slave trade. Equiano published his own autobiography which allowed people to see slavery through the eyes of a former enslaved African.

With Britain now supporting the abolition of slavery, abolitionists pushed to get other countries to ban the slave trade as well. It took a lot of effort in order to get the governments of all the countries involved. Large subsidies were paid to induce countries to agree to anti-slavery treaties with Britain. African chiefs were even paid to cease their involvement. All of this shows how much Great Britain opposed slavery because they were willing to pay so much money just to get rid of something that could have been very profitable.

The abolishment of slavery is special because it was the first successful episode ever in the history of international human rights law. This event even involved international courts, courts formed between nations and used for settling global disputes associated with the international laws. The international court's first cases were related to slave trade, which is not what people usually think. Most people relate international courts to more specific events like prosecution of Nazis after World War II, but don’t realize that slavery was the original “crime against humanity.”

Sparked by the end of slavery, the development of human rights was a big event because it set rules and regulations that became the standard of how people were suppose to be treated. Future global events such as the Holocaust were related to the idea of mistreatment of people and reminded everyone of how important human rights were.


The Development of Human Rights Theory


"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" engraving (1787). Source: Digital Public Library of America

When it was trying to abolish slavery, Britain not only used its military power and made treaties with other countries, it also created one of the first instances of international law. International courts made of judges from different countries applied this to hundreds of slave trade-related cases, all around the Atlantic. But the most interesting part is that this was the first time human rights had successfully been brought into international concern.

In the movement to abolish the slave trade, we see the origins of modern human rights: the beliefs that every single person has basic rights that cannot be violated for any reason. For example, the United States Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The next instance of international courts was in the aftermath of World War II. This is widely regarded as the first use, leading to the common objection (at least in the US) that it puts everyone’s rights in the hands of other countries, which goes against the ideas of the people who wrote the US Declaration of Independence. This is one reason why it’s important to realize that international courts and law are not a product of the twentieth century; international law was accepted by the US only thirty years after it was written.

But the horrors of the mid twentieth century accentuated the need for an agreed-upon document outlining the basic human rights. Creating such a document proved difficult, however. It took three years of arguments and negotiations to create it. Representatives from all over the world worked to bring all of their countries’ political, as well as cultural, beliefs about human rights. Then on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

To be useful, however, people have to know that they have these rights, and can do something if they’re not being honored. Eleanor Roosevelt, who lead the development of the UDHR, said that “without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” To avoid human rights disasters like the transatlantic slave trade and the Holocaust, people have to know that they have basic rights that cannot be violated, by anyone.

Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. Slavery, despite being illegal in every single country, is surprisingly common.


Slavery Today


The slave trade is widely known as something that happened in the past. But, even though slavery is illegal everywhere, 21 million people are still trapped in servitude today in almost every part of the world. Many of the everyday objects we come across such as cars and chocolate are made from the labors of forced workers today.

There are many conveniences of slavery to the modern human traffickers. Slaves today are quite cheap compared to the times of the transatlantic slave trade; the current price of a slave is less than 1 percent of what it used to be, on average 90 dollars, so they are much easier to obtain than they used to be. Furthermore, they are disposable. Back during the 1800s, the slaves had to be captured and transported on a ship all the way across the atlantic ocean, so they, once successfully brought to the United States, were valuable. But now, they are easy to transport and buy, so they are just killed off when they get sick.

Many people immigrating to wealthier countries in search of work become more vulnerable to human trafficking. They often can’t speak the language of the new country and are alone without their family back in their homeland, and so they are especially unsuspicious of traffickers. The traffickers pose as employers, but then exploit the immigrants into forced labor, and since they are unfamiliar in the new country it is difficult for them to call for help.

It is reasonable to think that over the years, slavery became more humane and less cruel, because of past slavery events, but that is truly not the case. Slaves work day and night in unbearable conditions and are shown no mercy. Human traffickers are just as harsh as they used to be, if not more so. In fact, these cheap prices and disposability of modern slaves have just encouraged the cruelty of human trafficking today.

Children sold into slavery in the fisheries of the Lake Volta region in Ghana. Source:

Children make up a fairly large portion of labor trafficking. Many impoverished families, because they can’t support their children, have given them up to work. These helpless children are taken advantage of, and in many cases are forced to work day and night with inhumane treatment and less than the bare minimum of food and sleep needed to survive. One of the most common forms of child labor in Ghana is working on fishing boats. Parents of poor families in Ghana are persuaded to send their children to work on fishing boats on Lake Volta. The employers lie to the parents, saying the children will only have to work a few hours a day in exchange for an education. But really, they are forced to work over half the day with hardly any food and are beaten and abused when they don’t work. Additionally, the boats they work on are dangerous and not strong against storms. Some of the children end up drowning in the water, entangled in fishing nets, and are never seen again by their families, and the parents are none the wiser.

Much of the treatment of slaves today is similar to how the slaves back during the transatlantic slave trade were treated, but it’s not all the same. Although most slavery worldwide is forced labor, in the United States a surprisingly small percentage of human trafficking is labor; most of it is sex trafficking. Some victims, quite often children, are brought into the United States by people with promises of a better life, education, and success, and then are forced into sexual exploitation. This type of slavery did exist back during the slave trade, but it was less common and was usually combined with labor.

Even though slavery has been banned everywhere, that hasn’t stopped human traffickers from enslaving people. But, these deeds do not go unnoticed. Today, many organizations are working to prevent human trafficking today and fully eradicate slavery.


Modern Anti-Slavery Activism


Many people assume that slavery is a thing of the past, ending with the abolishment of the transatlantic slave trade. But it is still a major problem, even in the seemingly perfect 21st century. Chances are that human trafficking is happening right at your doorstep without you even knowing it.

As shown in the diagram human trafficking is happening everywhere in the world, even in well developed regions of the world such as America. Here are some numbers: The average cost of a slave today is 90$, there are approximately 20-30 million slaves today also, approximately 600-800 thousand people are trafficked across international borders every year, of which approximately four-fifths are women and half are children, out of the 600-800 thousand humans trafficked approximately 14.5-17.5 thousand are trafficked to the United States. These statistics show that as outdated and a thing of the past we think human slavery is, it is still happening.

But on the bright side there are many organizations fighting human trafficking such as the Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a toll free hotline for exploited humans. Other resources include the Good Weave organization which helps child workers in the rug weaving industry, through their efforts they have brought child labor in the rug industry down by 75 percent. Another one of the many facets of human trafficking is the forced prostitution, organizations that deal with this problem, such as Prajwala, often raids brothels and rescues exploited women and children from brothels where they are sold over and over again. Another organization that takes a different approach is COSA or Child’s Organization of South Asia, which seeks to reach out to communities in Thailand about the dangers of human trafficking. It seeks to take the problem down at it’s roots.

All of these human trafficking are specialized in their respective fields but they all share some common traits. There seem to be two main approaches to human trafficking, the upstream and downstream method. One starts and tries to asks the question, what makes someone more prone to exploitation and human trafficking? Some characteristics they all share is they tend to be minorities that are discriminated against, be it government or people. They also tend to be ignorant of the threat that is human trafficking. Organizations that take this preemptive approach tend to try to educate a population about human trafficking. The second approach is one that targets individuals who have already been taken advantage of. Organizations like these are focused on the people who weren’t educated by organizations like COSA and educate them, with the hope that they will tell others about the horrors they’ve gone through and how to  prevent it.

A demonstration against human trafficking. Source: