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Constitutional conventions: best practice

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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 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: 56 min 49 sec ago

In Episode 7 we talk modern slavery statistics and the challenges that face those trying to get to the hard facts about the issue. Our guest is  Sir Bernard Silverman, a mathematician and statistician who produced the first scientific estimate of the number of modern slaves in the United Kingdom.

 00.00 - 04.10 

  • Todd begins asking Sir Bernard about the difficulties in researching "hard to find populations” such as the victims of modern slavery, and in particular the issues of sampling and bias when drawing inferences from such difficult to obtain data.
  • Sir Bernard agrees and suggests that the only way to avoid errors is to construct mathematical models and construct a sampling methodology to describe the data. He explains that classical sampling methods are not applicable to the victims of modern slavery
  • Todd points out that the only way to identify victims is if they come forward to the National Crime Agency and/or other referral mechanisms, to create different " convenience samples"

 04.10 - 08.20 

  • Sir Bernard mentions similar work carried out in Kosovo on the difficulties of estimating the number of deaths as a result of the conflict in the Former Yugoslavia
  • Todd suggests that in this and similar instances the focus was on the number of dead bodies and was relatively easy to count whereas modern slavery is much harder to define and thus counting the numbers involved is much more complex
  • Sir Bernard agrees adding that counting the number of dead has a lower margin for error - with no clear definition of modern slavery, there will be greater uncertainty about arriving at a total number of modern slaves

 08.20 - 12.41 

  • Todd asks Bernard about the estimate of modern slavery victims in the UK and how it compares with the rest of the world
  • Bernard answers that the quoted numbers (10,000 - 13,000) for the UK are probably under-estimation but says the number is large and should concentrate the minds of politicians, the police and the public
  • World wide the UK ranks towards the bottom in terms of the risk factors that lead people into slavery
  • Todd develops this theme by comparing slavery estimates for India and Luxembourg in terms of absolute numbers and the percentage of the population, in particular the estimate of 100 for Luxembourg, a number which may not quite capture the fact that .work-xbased commuting may actual double the population for Luxembourg and by inference the number of possible slaves.
  • Sir Bernard adds the caveat that it is an estimate based on comparisons with neighbouring countries, not a fully accurate number
  • Sir Bernard argues that the recent legislation makes the UK increasingly hostile to modern slavery in comparison with other countries

 12.41 - 15.26 

  • Todd turns to discuss government spending and asks what level of priority is given to modern slavery in comparison with other forms of crime
  • In Sir Bernard's view the focus is less about budget allocations and more about agenda setting for the police and awareness raising for the public, NGO's and academics

 15.26- 18.59

  • Todd asks how can proxy measures be use to indicate the prevalence of slavery
  • Sir Bernard lists the following possibilities:
  1. Suspect bank accounts
  2. Very cheap services e.g. low cost car washes
  3. Individuals offering the same service in different locations
  4. Suspicious financial transactions
  5. Suspicious patterns of personal behaviour
  • The development of reliable proxy measures is in its infancy - extrapolating from proxy measures to reliable numerical estimates is not easy
  • Looking for change in reliable proxy measures may well be better indicators of the effectiveness of anti-slavery measures

 18.59 - end

  • Todd asks whether there is away that Big Data techniques can be used to enhance proxy measures
  • In reply Sir Bernard suggests undertaking textual analysis on company policy statements on supply chains. Larger textual analysis would need to focus on specific sectors and investigators will need to know in advance what they are looking for.

Further resources and information

In Episode 5 of Series 3 we find out how satellites are being used to root out slavery from space. Our guest is Dr Doreen Boyd from the University of Nottingham who is part of a team of researchers who are the first on the world to use geospatial intelligence to identify slavery locations to support the efforts of organisations and individuals trying to root out and put an end to modern slavery in countries around the world.

0.00 - 6.45

  • Doreen explains how previously she has been using satellites to look at tropical rainforests but more recently as part of the Rights Lab project has been using them to identify locations where modern slavery is occurring
  •  It takes many months to obtain completely cloud free images of the earth's surface but the resolution of the images is improving all the time
  • Todd mentions examples of where satellites have been used to identify human rights abuses such as in Sri Lanka and in South Sudan
  • A major part of the work to date has involved using satellite imagery to identify brick kilns in South Asia - brick kilns are often linked with modern slavery (around 70 per cent of workforce)
  • The project covers the so-called Brick Belt which covers 1.25 square kilometres
  • Todd points out that this is part of a much bigger problem and that certain industries are harder to spot from space

6.50 - 12.15

  • Doreen talks about how her team used images from the free source Google Earth to count brick kilns in an area and then statistically estimate the size of the problem
  • She explains how this information can then be used to expose and address the problem
  • Todd outlines some of the statistical techniques and how they are similar across disciplines 
  • Discussion around who uses the evidence and how and why it is so robust and indisputable

12.15 - end

  • The research team has also discovered evidence of modern slavery at fisheries in the UNESCO World Heritage site Sundarbans National Park in Bangladesh
  • Doreen points out that as well as identifying human rights abuses the technology can also identify environmental issues
  • Doreen outlines some additional work on charcoal production in Brazil 
  • Todd mentions the risks associated with following up on evidence on the ground but also how deployment of technology (e.g. use of drones) can overcome some of those problems
  • Doreen talks about how being able to link environmental issues and modern slavery has had a role in promoting activism

Further resources and information



In Episode 4 of Series 3 we talk about why the voices of modern slaves are key to finding the solutions that will help end slavery. Our guests are Andrea Nicholson and Minh Dang who are researching survivor narratives as part of the Rights Lab project at the University of Nottingham.

 0.00 - 03.50

  • What does it mean to be a survivor of slavery? Andrea explains the world is only just beginning to accept that slavery still exists, and, although it has many similarities with 19th century chattel slavery, it does not look the same
  • Todd describes a survivor as someone who was formerly a slave who has since been liberated - Andrea points out that even when liberated survivors are still attached to the experience of slavery and experience difficulty in "divorcing" from enslavement and the fear of re-enslavement
  • Andrea makes a distinction between victims (a limiting term) and survivors (an empowering term) – in this context she sees victims as a ‘legal term’, someone seeking redress for offences committed against them using criminal law while survivors don't necessarily see themselves as victims
  • Todd mentions an earlier episode of The Rights Track with William Simmons in which he stressed the importance of remembering that people who have suffered human rights abuses do not only identify themselves as victims – there are ‘joyful’ things about their lives too
  • Andrea agrees stressing that many survivors of slavery are also scholars, activists, and leaders who are engaged in action against slavery and why it’s important to acknowledge and understand that

03.50 - 07.43

Todd introduces Minh Dang who is leading a project in San Francisco around the formation of the Survivor Alliance

  • Minh explains how, as a survivor herself she became aware of a disconnect between academic research and the experiences of survivors
  • She explains how her research seeks to build the voices of survivors into the design of research projects and anti-slavery solutions/interventions
  • Discussion of how and why the voices of survivors can be incorporated into the structuring of research projects through the use of participatory methods and action research techniques
  • Minh talks about her experience of a community-based participatory research study, evaluating an anti-trafficking task force in San Francisco, where the research questions and project design came from survivors and how her PhD is asking survivors how they define well-being to inform and assess mental health interventions and how that will help practitioners (doctors/nurses/counsellors) provide better support
  • The San Francisco project is highlighted as one which features a multi-agency approach and is inclusive of the views and experiences of survivors – Minh mentions the project’s human trafficking report


07.43 - 13.45


            See also: Anti-Slavery; The Usable Past

  • Defining slavery is problematic - the 1926 definition focuses on rights of ownership - this creates issues for courts and NGOs so Andrea and Minh’s work uses survivors’ perceptions of what slavery is
  • Emerging from the narratives are concerns that some forms of slavery are being missed such as the sexual slavery of men and boys
  • The narratives are being mapped against the 169 Sustainable Development Goals
  • While SDG 8.7 is very explicit in terms of slavery, others related to education, health, armed conflict, climate change and gender bias may also be relevant
  • Minh adds that survivors don't identify as being ‘a slave’ until they are made aware - they may focus instead on domestic violence, poverty, racism or immigration issues

14.36 - 19.50

  • Andrea agrees that labelling of their experiences is important for survivors and gives them something to hold on to and a community to belong to.
  • Work with survivors around narratives has begun to reveal a great deal on perceptions of trauma, recovery, freedom and particularly what the definition of slavery means to them
  • Discussion on the impact of enslavement on survivors and how people process what has happened
  • Very little work has been done on trauma associated with slavery and it may not be the same as for survivors of other traumas such as the holocaust or domestic abuse, and evidence from survivor narratives shows post slavery trauma to be long lasting and complex and varied in impact on survivors - this project adds to that new and growing body of evidence
  • Minh joins the discussion on how focus should be directed away from the moment of freedom to the longer term which is that rescue is not the end of the process but the beginning of a long journey to recovery

19.50 - 23.24

  • Survivor Solutions has already thrown up specific strategic solutions from survivors which include public awareness campaigns, education programmes for vulnerable communities to reduce the power of traffickers, regulation of employment agencies, providing platforms for survivors to speak, monitoring of government anti-slavery programmes, and provision of safe housing

 Other useful links: