Examining the Slave Trade and Origins of International Human Rights Law

Before the international human rights law regime was established, international law guided and colluded in many human rights atrocities which disregarded the rights of certain human beings and created an international system used to exploit these individuals.[1]

            The use of human beings as slaves was made an international economy; this immoral system was developed by governments who adopted ideologies which justified the forceful enslavement of Africans[2] including the belief that enslaved individuals were less-than and needed the governance of Europeans because these individuals were believed to be incapable of managing their own agency.[3] Africans were primarily exploited, as some believed that other minoritized groups were less fit to withstand the brutal, inhumane work and conditions of slavery.[4] For example, Spanish settlers advocated for the use of African slaves instead of Native American slaves, “reporting that in mining operations the work of one African was equal to that of four to eight [Native Americans].”[5] Africans were also primarily exploited for slavery due to their heightened resistance to disease as compared to other minoritized groups.[6] Individuals were forced into slavery through various means, including, but not limited to: members of defeated Tribes being enslaved; being sold into slavery as a punishment for criminal activity; the raiding of African villages and enslavement of individuals from these conquered territories; the selling, or casting out of members of the community into slavery for financial benefit, or as a form of excommunication; and, by Africans, capturing or kidnapping other Africans.[7]

            The international passage of slaves “tells a story of what heartless creatures will do: derive profit from the labor and life of a human being. A life of whom is not calculated or bartered for in any civilized society.”[8] Slaves were subject to a plethora of crimes against humanity; slaves: were forced to lie in their own feces and urine; endured lashings from the whips of slave-traders; were herded onto crowded ships by whips; were branded by slave-traders with scorching hot iron tools, tagging these enslaved individuals for the purpose of proving receipt or designating ownership; were shackled with iron cuffs and iron devices around their necks, arms, and legs and connected by limb to other enslaved individuals to discourage and complicate escape attempts; and were raped by European sailors and other traders.[9] Slaves were tortured and killed, in part to psychologically manipulate enslaved peoples; individual abuse, and the observance of slave abuse by other enslaved individuals worked to instill fear in enslaved people and to depress insurrection.[10] Slave traders would subject slaves to further torture including the rubbing of ashes, salt, and pepper into their wounds[11] and forced slaves “to eat the flesh of rebellious slaves.”[12] One captain of a slave ship “whipped and sacrificed two slaves and sentenced three abettors to cruel deaths, making them first eat the heart and liver of their fellow slave”.[13] While the list of named atrocities, and crimes against humanity faced by slaves during these times is not exhaustive, it demonstrates how “slave traders and overseers devised a plan to ensure the physical dependence and psychological destruction of an entire people.”[14]

            For centuries, slavery was a crime against humanity, but was not recognized as such, because slaves were not considered human during this time by the ruling classes and dominant nations.[15] However, slavery was eventually outlawed, partially due to military force, and coordinated international legal action, including international courts.[16] International courts around the Atlantic heard cases related to the slave trade, “the original ‘crime against humanity.’”[17] These international courts “heard more than six hundred cases and freed almost 80,000 slaves found aboard illegal slave trading vessels.”[18] Some argue that the nineteenth-century slavery abolition movement was the first successful international human rights campaign, with international courts and treaties being its central features.[19]

            International Human Rights Law works to guarantee the existence and rights of minorities, from majority groups in various states, by creating agreed-upon rules governing society “in the form of a constitutionally entrenched and justiciable bill of rights containing basic human rights for all.”[20] While International Human Rights Law recognizes the atrocities faced by slaves as human rights violations, the protection of minoritized groups, and the human rights of these minoritized individuals should be an ever-present focus; as the topic of human rights lies at a critical juncture in various tensions—including between concepts of natural and universal law, between religious and secular ideas of law and society, between European and non-European societies and cultures, and between state power, moral ideas, and domestic and international legal institutions.[21]



[1] Patricia M. Muhammad Esq, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Forgotten Crime Against Humanity as Defined by International Law, 19 Am. Univ. Int’l L. Rev. 883, 914 (2003) (“France, Great Britain, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany were among those European nations that participated in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, demonstrating, at least, the extreme governmental entanglement in the enterprise,’ and at most, the governmental monopoly of this exploitive industry. These various nation-states all primarily financed and supported the Trans-Atlantic slave trade”).

[2] Id. at 887.

[3] Id. at 887-88.

[4] Id. at 888.

[5] Edward Reynolds, Human Commerce, in CAPTIVE PASSAGE: THE TRANSATLANTIC TRADE AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAS 53, 13, 14 (Beverly C. McMillan ed., 2002) (“Spanish settlers began advocating the use of African slaves instead of Amerindians, ‘reporting that in mining operations the work of one African was equal to that of four to eight Indians.’”).

[6] Id. (“suggesting that the growing labor needs of Spanish sugar mills, coupled with the high mortality rate of Amerindians from exposure to previously unknown diseases such as smallpox, typhus, measles, and influenza forced the crown to turn towards Africa as a source of slave labor . . . [w]hereas the native Indians declined rapidly from diseases brought over by the European settlers, Africans resisted disease much better.”).

[7] Muhammad supra note 1, at 890, 892-93.

[8] Id. at 895.

[9] Id. at 895-900.

[10] Id. at 899.

[11] Hugh Thomas, THE SLAVE TRADE: THE STORY OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE: 1440 – 1870 at 427 “The captor whipped all the others who had taken part in the rebellion, and rubbed ashes, salt, and pepper into their wounds.”).

[12] Id.

[13] Thomas, supra note 11, at 425-26 (“describing how Captain Harding whipped and scarified two slaves and sentenced three abettors to cruel deaths, making them first eat the heart and liver of their fellow slave”).

[14] Muhammad supra note 1, at 900.

[15] Id. at 903.

[16] Jenny S. Martinez, The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law, Stanford Lawyer Fall 2011 Issue 85 (Oct. 28, 2011) https://law.stanford.edu/stanford-lawyer/articles/the-slave-trade-and-the-origins-of-international-human-rights-law-2/.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Frans Viljoen, International Human Rights Law: A Short Story, UN Chronicle, https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/international-human-rights-law-short-history.

[21] Supra note 15..