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Sustainable futures

Addressing modern slavery at COP26

Modern slavery has increasingly been linked to the environment; in particular environmental degradation and climate change. This nexus is both cyclical and bi-directional meaning that modern slavery can be a driver of environmental change as well an outcome – changes in the environment can push people into situations where they may become vulnerable to modern slavery and vice versa. To address climate change, the impacts of modern slavery must be accounted for. COP26 provides us with the opportunity to outline the importance of including the risks of the modern slavery-environmental degradation-climate change nexus in the conversation, and draw together cooperation between previously disparate groups to end modern slavery and protect the environment, in alignment with the aims of COP26 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

At the Rights Lab, the Ecosystems and the Environment Programme is working toward understanding this nexus in a range of sectors – from fishing and food systems, to forests and carbon emissions. Our work aims to address the co-occurrence between the environment and modern slavery, and move beyond this to quantify the relationship and provide evidence for the development of data-oriented policy change that concurrently tackles the nexus. This will require collaborative actions from those within the antislavery sector, and those seeking to address environmental change.

COP26 provides a platform upon which to integrate the impacts of climate change upon previously marginalised groups. As has been the case at previous COP events regarding the greater integration of voices from indigenous communities and island nations, the conference provides an opportunity to generate meaningful change by integrating the ideas and voices of those working to address modern slavery.

Policy Recommendations

During a roundtable event hosted by the Rights Lab in partnership with Delta 8.7 (UNU-CPR) and WWF US, experts who work to address the nexus were brought together. COP26 was seen as a vital opportunity to develop and promote policy change that can support both people and the environment. Such collaboration should incorporate policy changes that expand beyond collaborative action between civil society actors alone, into those that seek to incorporate policy makers, businesses, and survivors. Our recommendations for policy makers include a number of specific requests to which COP26 can be used as a starting-point, but which should be developed beyond the conference.

Centring of survivor voices

COP26 should provide an opportunity to engage with a wide variety of local experts who have experience regarding various stages of the nexus. Therefore, when developing policy to address climate change and environmental degradation associated with the modern slavery, the views of workers, environmental defenders and survivors of modern slavery should be centred. This should feed into legislation design, intervention programming and the development of appropriate support mechanisms and monitoring tools.

Combined social-ecological legislation

Due diligence should push for provisions that address social-ecological impacts. This is lacking in a lot of current legislation; they are siloed to address either climatic impacts or modern slavery. There has been movement toward legislation that includes both factors, and this should be promoted in the context of COP26 as something the international community as a whole should undertake. For example, the EU’s proposed mandatory Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence (mHREDD) framework proposes penalties for those failing to address modern slavery and environmental crimes. Such calls have been made by both antislavery and environmental organisations. COP26 should promote a collaborative development process for the legislation so that such legal frameworks operate at global scales.

Targeting development and finance communities

Development and finance organisations need to be actively engaged to eliminate the impacts of the nexus. The unique opportunity COP26 raises to draw together actors from government, business, and third-sector organisations means that there is the ability to collaborate and share ideas linked to the funding and design of interventions to end modern slavery, limit environmental degradation and mitigate against climate change.

As businesses and governments rely on access to development assistance and global funding mechanisms, it is crucial that inclusion of compliance to legislation pertaining to the nexus (e.g., the mHREDD) are included as a component of funding eligibility.

Holistically addressing modern slavery impacts

In the past, studies of the nexus have over-emphasised certain sectors and geographies. These ‘hotspots’ mean that the broader impacts of the nexus may not be captured. For example, there has been much focus on Thai fisheries. However, other communities and sectors have faced limited support. These include: indigenous communities who may experience implications of modern slavery risk associated with access to land as noted in Brazil and other areas of South America; and the risk of debt bondage faced my migrant communities in response to climate change impacts such as in Cambodia.

This blinkered approach has caused an over-emphasis on formerly colonised countries often from the perspective of the Global North nations and their ideas of the nexus. This colonial focus has also been a critique of the COP process. It is important that addressing the nexus be reflected in the policies and the processes that are designing legislative change. The local communities and leaders within the modern slavery and environmental conservation movements in locations affected by the nexus should voice their ideas and concerns, and these are accounted for during COP and beyond.

"Without ending modern slavery, the cycle of the (modern slavery - environmental degradation -climate change) nexus will not be eliminated, thus leading to continued environment, social and climatic issues"
Dr Bethany Jackson

Sustainable development for people and the planet

COP26 provides an opportunity to engage the international community and increase awareness of the legislative movement needed in order to address the modern slavery-environmental degradation-climate change nexus.

Without ending modern slavery, the cycle of the nexus will not be eliminated, thus leading to continued environment, social and climatic issues. It is paramount that our actions centre the rights and voices of workers and communities—including survivors of modern slavery—to end modern slavery, protect the planet and mitigate against the impacts of climate change. COP26 should be taken as an opportunity to include modern slavery impacts on the agenda and move toward breaking the nexus in accordance with the COP targets around climate change, and the overarching global achievement of the SDGs.

Dr Bethany Jackson

Dr Bethany Jackson is a Rights Lab Senior Research Fellow in Modern Slavery and Sustainable Ecosystems

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