The Legal Concept of Slavery in the Modern European Legal Sphere

Author:Kärt Pormeister
Kärt Pormeister
Magister artium
The Legal Concept of Slavery
in the Modern European Legal
1. Introduction
Slavery as a legal concept has seemingly lost its relevance in the modern European*2 legal sphere, with the
term ‘slavery’ being thought to point to an archaic concept. However, developments of the last decade indi-
cate otherwise. In 2001 and 2002, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) dis-
sected the legal concept of slavery in order to determine the applicability of the prohibition of enslavement
in modern circumstances.*3 The term ‘slavery’ was also incorporated into the Statute of the International
Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002.*4 Then, in 2005, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) analysed
the meaning of slavery within the meaning of Article 4 of the European Convention for the Protection of
Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).*5 It follows from these developments that the concept
of slavery cannot have lost its relevance. On the contrary, slavery is even an ever more serious problem of
modern society rather than an archaic concept.*6 However, not all abuses of a person’s integrity and right to
self-determination amount to slavery. The question of what practices correspond to the contemporary legal
1 The article is based on the author’s master’s thesis written and defended in 2013 at the University of Tartu. The original work
is written in Estonian.
2 For the purpose of the article, the European legal sphere is de ned as consisting of the 47 member states of the Council of
Europe. The focus on the modern concept of slavery solely in the European legal sphere is intended to narrow the object of
the article in consideration of the fact that, rst of all, the modern legal concept of slavery cannot reasonably be expected to
be on the same level globally. In Europe, the legal approach to human rights is extremely progressive in a global comparison.
Secondly, the historical concept of slavery differs somewhat amongst Western states, particularly between Europe and the
United States. For the latter, the concept of slavery had a complex intra-territorial relevance, whereas for European states
in the recent centuries slavery had rst and foremost been a colonial matter and, accordingly, slavery was initially more of
an extraterritorial concept. In consequence, the academic debate addressing the legal concept of slavery and the evolution
thereof can hardly be compared between these two parts of the world, certainly not within the capacity of one article.
3 ICTY (Trial Chamber) judgement of 22.2.2001, Case IT-96-23-T&IT-96-23/1-T, Prosecutor v. Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir
Kovac and Zoran Vukovic; ICTY (Appeals Chamber) judgement of 12.6.2002, Case IT-96-23&IT-96-23/1-A, Prosecutor v.
Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic.
4 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (adopted on 17 July 1998 and entering into force on 1 July 2002) – 2187
5 ECtHR judgement of 26.7.2005, Application 73316/01, case of Siliadin v. France, Reports of Judgments and Decisions
6 Today, the trade in human beings is referred to frequently as human traf cking. According to Eurostat’s 2013 report
on ‘traf cking in human beings’, the number of cases of human traf cking increased by 18% from 2008 to 2010, reach-
ing nearly 10,000 victims by 2010. The report is available at
news/2013/docs/20130415_thb_stats_report_en.pdf (most recently accessed on 12.2.2014).

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