Article 4:
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Concepts and Ideas

  1. Concepts and Ideas
  2. The Abolitionist Movement

The movement towards the abolition of slavery was a process that occurred in different places and at different times. The following are some of the key events that preceded the drafting of Article 4 of the Universal Declaration.

United Kingdom

Under the leadership of William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, the abolitionist movement grew politically influential in the UK in the 1800's. These two famous antislavery activists started the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, an organization which was later renamed Anti-Slavery International for the Protection of Human Rights. This organization is in turn known to be the world's oldest non-governmental organization ("NGO"). It was partly because of pressure form this organization that Parliament banned traffic in slaves in 1807 with the passage of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This Act authorized the inspection and confiscation of ships suspected of trafficking slaves. The more extended prohibition against slavery came about in 1833.

United States of America

The first abolitionist movement in the US was organized by the Quakers, who began making public anti-slavery statements in 1724. Although Rhode Island, the first American state, abolished slavery as early as 1774, this did not influence the drafters of the Constitution of 1778, who chose not to include an express prohibition of slavery. The abolitionist movement was reinvigorated in the 1830's when activists such as William Lloyd Garrison started publishing the influential anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. It was in 1831 in Philadelphia that the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded.

Despite these developments in the 1830's, it was not until the presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln that slavery became a topic of major political debate. Opposing views on slavery are one of the main reasons for the outbreak of the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation declared by Lincoln during the war foreshadowed the final abolition of slavery which came with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. (Grolier Encyclopedia)

In the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln stated on 1 January 1863 that:

by virtue of the power and the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforth shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

The Thirteenth Amendment states that:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


During the 19th century a number of international treaties were signed in an attempt to ban slavery. (Larsen, 87) The Peace Treaty of Paris in 1814 was the first multilateral treaty to condemn the slave trade. Other treatises, such as the 1815 Treaty of Paris, the 1815 Declaration and Final Act of the Congress of Vienna, and the 1822 Declaration of Verona, followed suit. Although these treaties lacked enforcement mechanisms or definite implementation deadlines, a number of states began outlawing the slave trade, as did the Latin American colonies upon achieving their independence. The respective dates of these events were as follows: France in 1848; Portugal in 1958; the Netherlands in 1863; Spain in Cuba in 1870; and Brazil in 1871. (Larsen, 88) In addition, the abolitionist movement was not an exclusively Western phenomenon and Muslim and Buddhist anti-slavery movements are also known to have been active during this period.

International Treaties Dealing with the Issue of Slavery Before the Universal Declaration

An important step in banning slavery globally was the General Act of Berlin of 1885. This Act was the first to affirm that trading in slaves was forbidden in conformity with the principles of international law. Five years later it was supplemented by the 1890 General Act of the Brussels Conference, which provided the enforcement measures needed to regulate the slave trade. This treaty set up the International Maritime Office at Zanzibar, the first international organization established to deal with this particular issue. Other legal documents dealing with the banning of slavery were the Slavery Convention of Geneva of 1926 and the Forced Labor Convention of 1930. The Slavery Convention of Geneva inaugurated under the auspices of the League of Nations required that the signatory states actively prevent and suppress the slave trade. (Larsen, 88)

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Peter Danchin, Columbia University