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A “Wicked Problem” that Requires a Human Rights-Based Approach

Digital Business Laws and Regulations Modern Slavery: A “Wicked Problem” that Requires a Human Rights-Based Approach 2022 by Anne O'Donoghue and Palwasha Nawabi



A migrant woman’s passport was seized, calls to family overseas were monitored and she was threatened to face deportation if she did not work “hard enough” in the cake business her alleged perpetrators were operating.  This happened in 2021.  This happened in Sydney, Australia.[i]

While many of us may be content to believe that all forms of slavery were extinguished in its historical abolition, or that it is too far away from home to have any relevance in our own social realities, slavery not only survived abolition, but it mutated, thrived, and spread globally and its existence taints our everyday lives – from the clothes we wear, the services we use, the food we eat, to the money we spend.  This new form of slavery is known as “Modern Slavery”.  Modern Slavery is more prevalent than we think: Australian Federal Police received 224 reports of “human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like offences” in the 2020/21 financial year.[ii]

As a result of the clandestine, lucrative, and seemingly intractable nature of the crime, this global “wicked problem” requires an international human rights-based approach to be impactful and stamp out the conditions in which Modern Slavery is permitted to thrive.

Human rights are indivisible, inherent, interdependent, and symbiotic.  This means that there is no hierarchy between them and that the fulfilment of one right ensures the fulfilment of others, and  violation of one right will naturally lead to the violation of others.[iii]  A human rights-based approach to policy and law  is “a way of empowering people to know and claim their rights and increases the ability and accountability of individuals and institutions who are responsible for respecting, protecting and fulfilling rights”.[iv]  The Scottish Human Rights Commission poignantly encapsulates that this involves “raising awareness of what human rights mean and giving people greater opportunities to participate in shaping the decisions that impact on their human rights…and increasing the ability of those with responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil human rights” obligations.[v]

Accordingly, this chapter will look at: the definition and nature of Modern Slavery as a “wicked problem”; the difficulties in quantifying the social problem and offer ways in which organisations are innovating to solve this; the importance of human rights-based approaches to difficult public policy challenges; Australia’s international and domestic framework; and the ways in which Australia can respond to ongoing and emerging policy challenges as informed by a human rights-based approach.

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