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This week’s front page editor

Rosemary Bechler

Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy's mainsite editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Syndicate content The Rights Track
The Rights Track podcast gets the hard facts about the human rights challenges facing the world today and aims to get our thinking about human rights on the right track. The podcast is hosted by Professor Todd Landman, a human rights scholar and champion for the advancement of human rights understanding. In our latest series, we take our podcast on the road to capture the voices, experiences and knowledge of people around the world who are part of the global coalition to end Modern Slavery by 2030. We’ll find out how the work of The Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham is supporting and influencing NGOs, businesses and policy makers as it continues to pursue its world leading research agenda to evidence and support the change needed to achieve that goal. In Series 1, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, Todd interviews leading analysts at the forefront of the latest critical thinking on human rights. Each episode is an insightful, compelling and rigorous interview with academics engaged in systematic human rights research. In Series 2, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, The Rights Track turns its attention to human rights advocates and practitioners involved in the struggle for human rights to learn more about their work and the ways in which academic research is helping them. Series 3 sees our podcast joining the fight to end modern day slavery by 2030. In partnership with the University of Nottingham's Right's Lab research project, we talk with researchers who are providing hard evidence about the scale of the problem and by recommending strategies that can help consign slavery to the history books. Although our interviews focus on often complex research, they have been developed with a much wider audience in mind and we want them to be accessible to anyone with an interest in human rights.
Updated: 27 min 47 sec ago

In Episode 8, guest host Zoe Trodd, Director of The Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham interviews regular Rights Track host Todd Landman about taking a human rights approach to researching and tackling modern slavery. They reflect together on why this is important to their programme of research aiming to end modern slavery and on the important and insightful conversations that The Rights Track has had about the work in the Series to date.

00.00 – 05.40

Discussion around quantitative analysis and why it matters in the field of human rights and anti-slavery research. Todd points out that there are aspects of lives (attributes) which can be quantified and that this:

  • Adds precision to analysis
  • Allows comparison between groups of people at different scales and across countries
  • Allows researchers to explore the relationships between different attributes or variables leading to generalisations and predictions

Zoe then asks what this means for the relatively young field of modern slavery research. Todd agrees the field of modern slavery research is in its infancy, but points out that so is the use of quantitative methods in the field of Human Rights.

He points to an early work by Donald Greer in 1935 which mapped violence during the French Revolution and the work of Mitchell and McCormack, World Politics Vol 40 1988 as the first real attempt at applying quantitative methods to the study of Human Rights. He says the fields of Human Rights and Modern Slavery share certain characteristics:

  • They study hard to find victims and practices
  • They use the same models
  • They share the same sources of data

Note: the study of hard to find populations and practices has the potential for measurement error which requires caution when dealing with the data and analysing the results.

05.25 – 11.20

Zoe points out that the field of human rights dates back to the 18thcentury and the work of the anti-slavery abolitionists and yet there is very little co-ordination between different groups working in the field of modern slavery. She wonders what Todd’s thoughts are on a human rights approach to modern slavery:

  • For governments and NGO’s, who concentrate on a criminal justice approach
  • International labour organisations who focus on modern slavery as a labour rights issue
  • Now human rights has been seen as a development issue (see SDG 8 plus table)

Todd sees the study of modern slavery evolving in a similar way to human rights:

  • Developing precise definitions and measurements of modern slavery
  • Human Rights work on obligations of the state to protect rights could be applied to the prevention and detection of modern slavery
  • Will need to move away from the narrow focus on civil rights violations and to look at what governments can do to create the socio-economic conditions to stop people falling in to modern slavery
  • It needs to move away from a law-based focus and to engage with other disciplines for example, statistics, to see what they can add to understanding
  • Techniques that have been developed in the field of human rights can also be applied to modern slavery; for example; “the who did what to whom” model, and multiple systems estimations
  • Combining rigorous research with advocacy requires researchers to remain as objective as possible – this can be a challenge when you are also looking to change something e.g. abolish slavery

11.20 – 15.50

Discussion around defining what modern slavery really means. Todd says:

  • As with other aspects of human rights such as torture, definitions are contested – mentions the Handbook on Reporting Torture
  • Definitions of modern slavery should be neither too narrow nor too broad
  • We live in a world where traditional indicators property, control, and coercion are not as obvious

Todd suggests modern slavery is the intentional denial of  “agency” or freedom, and the task is to identify what the intentional denial of agency involves.

15.50 – 21.10

Slavery as a development issue. Todd points out that historically slavery provided an exploitable work force and was a tool for economic development. He adds:

  • Slaves are a cheap form of labour, but he argues that this can be a drag on economic and social development because labour is not used efficiently, modern slaves are not wage earners or tax payers
  • Liberation on its own is not enough - there needs to be strong financial support mechanisms otherwise people may fall back into slavery

 21.10 – 27.50

Todd’s thoughts on The Rights Lab - measuring progress on HOW their 4 main questions might be answered.

  1. How many slaves are there in the world?

This needs to involve use of:

  1. Why does slavery persist? Todd suggests three approaches/questions:
  • What are the economic conditions which cause people to fall into slavery?
  • What are the structural and institutional conditions, which allow people to fall into slavery?
  • What are the cultural circumstances, which lead to forms of slavery becoming normalised?
  1. What approaches to tackling slavery work? 
  • Map how many NGOs are working in this field and find out what they are doing
  • Look at the success or otherwise of individual projects and understand why they were successful and importantly why they were not
  • Compare different interventions and contexts to understand why they worked
  1. What is the freedom dividend?
  • Need to acknowledge there may not be one
  • Identifying and measuring what constitutes a freedom dividend is very difficult
  • The link between liberation and a dividend will be difficult to prove

Zoe mentions the business case for removing slavery from supply chains as a possible dividend in this respect 

27.50 - end

Todd is asked to reflect on his highlights of the first year of The Rights Lab. They include: 

  • The passion of the researchers and the contributors to the Rights Track podcast
  • The innovative ways of generating and analysing data
  • The Geospatial work, which has revolutionised data collection. All human activity leaves a trace including slavery, and using geospatial analysis potential slavery activities have been identified enabling NGOs to be alerted and slaves to be liberated.

Todd finishes by talking about what next for The Rights Track including planned discussions with stakeholders and beneficiaries of the research and ideas to take the podcast on the road to talk to non academic groups involved in the struggle to end modern slavery.

Further links and resources





In Episode 7 we talk about the perpetrators of slavery with Austin Choi - Fitzpatrick, author of What Slave Holders Think - How Contemporary perpetrators rationalise what they do.

00.00 - 06.06 

  • Discussion of what drew Austin to research the perpetrators of slavery: not enough known about them and their relationship with the people they hold in slavery. Also important to consider the role perpetrators play both in the enslaving and freeing of people
  • Explanation of bonded labour in India, a practice where perpetrators are violating human rights but not local norms and where they don't see themselves as criminals, so the practice is in plain view
  • Todd refers to the well known Star Trek Prime Imperative (Directive) to suggest a possible metaphor for how how Austin approached interviewing the perpetrators of slavery
  • Austin says going in and labelling people immediately would have conversations to an abrupt end and explains how he took account of people’s own experiences and lives in his approach.
  • Using open ended questions about local issues: the climate, government, local law enforcement and relationships with local labour and advocacy groups in the community, helped him develop a picture of the nature of modern slavery
  • He avoided the use of abolitionist language and tried to learn more about how perpetrators see themselves 

06.06 - 10.30 

  • Todd asks how Austin came to be accepted by the local community and built trust and rapport
  • Austin explains how he discounted snowball sampling as a method and instead used a Leapfrog method - when he found people he believed to be perpetrators he got them to refer him on to others who were also involved with bonded labour
  • It was a challenge to work out if perpetrators were telling the truth Austin did by triangulating what he was told ‘on the fly’ to see which bits added up and which bits didn’t.
  • Austin describes how he grew his beard because that seemed to confer additional spiritual status within the community and shared his own family experiences as a grandson of a farmer to establish his credibility
  • Todd summarises this as a rapport and empathy approach 

10.30 – 17.20 

  • Austin explains he interviewed 40 perpetrators and 20 victims/survivors for his research and describes the main insights he gained were around
  1. A sense of lost relationships with their workers who they felt earlier had been members of their family
  2. A sense of lost respect of their workers that they had earned from relationships.                                                                Austin says it may have been a façade but found the choice of language was really interesting and what he was least prepared for
  • Todd then asks Austin to say more about the relationship between perpetrator and slave
  • He says that commonly the exploiter would be on the edge of the community or circle not separate from it (as for example a trafficker) and that then raises the issue of how people live together post emancipation
  • Todd makes a comparison with community courts called Gacaca in Rwanda which leads on to a discussion about issues surrounding reconciliation within communities, and what restorative justice looks like
  • Todd then asks if, once uncovered, perpetrators stop the practice
  • Austin says in some cases that depends on access to capital and cash either, to go into legitimate business or to use their status and connections with the police as a credible threat to the labour force and to carry on as before 

17.20 - 19.60 

  • Discussion around what motivated the perpetrators and how they rationalised what they were doing
  • Austin explains in many cases perpetrators had inherited the situation of control but were asking themselves why they would continue given the negative political impacts and whether they wanted to be seen as perpetrators of slavery - there is also a suggestion that for many there are few alternatives to the status quo
  • Austin then makes the point that there is not enough known about what it takes to come out of abusive relationships not least of all for the perpetrators – he adds it needs both victims and perpetrators to work together to reach some form of attributive justice
  • Todd references the work of Bill Simmons discussed in Series 1 of The Rights Track and his upcoming book Joyful Human Rights which raises the idea that human rights abuse victims also have a normal side to the lives they lead and comments that this is also the case for perpetrators or abusers 

19.60 - 24.52 

  • Todd wonders if Austin's research in India is applicable elsewhere
  • Austin suggests that it applies where labour exploitation is embedded in cultural practices e.g. India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh
  • In broader terms he says he is dealing with violation of human rights but not social norms and in stepping outside of the slavery context he recognises that social change means that current behaviours can become unacceptable - one question he raises is how we deal with behaviour that was once acceptable, and no longer is
  • He makes a final point about the way we all find ways to excuse exploitive
  • Todd highlights how our view of Human Rights principles is evolving, and how human rights terminology isn’t necessarily recognised by local communities
  • He closes by focussing on Gramsci’s notion of false consciousness in which people didn’t know they were being exploited or accepted they were perpetrators


Further links and resources