Law Can Break the Chains of Slavery

Last month, ABA ROLI hosted an International Colloquium on Law and Slavery in West Africa, cosponsored by the School of Oriental and African Studies of London, the University of Law and Political Science of Bamako, the French Cultural Institute of Bamako, the Embassy of Denmark, and the Agence Universitaire Francaise (AUF). This video highlights the importance of cooperation to fight hereditary slavery in Mali. ABA ROLI’s Mali country program combats descent-based slavery in Mali by partnering with Malian civil society organizations—Temedt, Association des Jurites Maliennes, and Observatoire des Droits de la Femme et de l’Enfant—to train justice sector actors on how to litigate slavery cases and community leaders on how to use alternative dispute resolution techniques to negotiate the freedom of victims. It has also helped victims file cases seeking compensation from perpetrators of slavery. As a result of the program, to date 40 victims of slavery have been freed.

By Lury Nkouessom

An estimated 200,000 victims of hereditary slavery — those born into slavery — live in the Republic of Mali. Victims of slavery are required to work without pay, often under appalling conditions. Many of them lack formal identity documents and face discrimination in accessing social services such as housing, schooling, and police protection. The government, by not acknowledging the existence of slavery, has failed to protect victims. One of the greatest challenges facing local and international organizations’ fight against slavery in Mali is the lack of legislation specifically criminalizing the practice.

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) began working with local organizations in Mali to combat hereditary slavery in 2010, and has now facilitated the establishment of a coalition of 15 human rights organizations to join Temedt, previously the only Malian civil society organization actively working to address the problem. ABA ROLI and these local partners have developed an advocacy strategy that serves as the compass to fight for the adoption of much-needed legislation. To date, as the size of the coalition has grown, it has led the way for an open debate on slavery among various stakeholders, even bringing victims from northern Mali to testify before the press about their plight. It has drafted and lobbied the government for the passage of an anti-slavery law and submitted it to the Ministry of Justice. While the Ministry of Justice subsequently presented the law to the Council of Ministers, it was withdrawn following political pressure. The importance of building strong and diversified alliances to mount a robust advocacy campaign to weaken the political influence of those who have a stake in continuing the practice of slavery has never been greater.

A definitive public statement, in the form of a law, is vital to combat the perception that slavery is acceptable because it is based on long-held religious, traditional, and cultural values. Because of this perception, many justice sector actors openly support slavery. ABA ROLI has trained judges, police officers, lawyers, and prosecutors on how to effectively investigate and litigate slavery cases, but most are either skeptical about the existence of slavery or plainly refuse to accept these types of cases in the absence of specific legislation on the issue.

Recently, the United Kingdom introduced a “Call to Action to end forced labor, modern slavery and human trafficking,” and on September 19, during the 72nd Meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, 37 member states and observer states endorsed this call to action. The call to action proposes to eradicate all forms of slavery from our societies and economies by 2030, in order to protect the world’s most vulnerable population. Achievement of this ambitious goal requires the full support of the international community, including through foreign assistance to build the capacity of communities, nongovernmental organizations, and governments to undertake reform efforts like those needed in Mali.

Simply put, without legislation that proactively and unequivocally declares that slavery is unacceptable in Mali, any efforts to eliminate the practice and provide robust protection to victims will be stymied by lack of high-level commitment, confusion about what is legally required, and general disengagement by those who are in a position to combat the problem.

To learn more about our work in Mali, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at

Lury Nkouessom is the Mali Country Director for the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative.