“Slavery is illegal everywhere.” So said the New York Times, repeated at the World Economic Forum, and used as a mantra of advocacy for over 40 years. The truth of this statement has been taken for granted for decades. Yet our new research reveals that almost half of all countries in the world have yet to actually make it a crime to enslave another human being.

Legal ownership of people was indeed abolished in all countries over the course of the last two centuries. But in many countries it has not been criminalised. In almost half of the world’s countries, there is no criminal law penalising either slavery or the slave trade.

In 94 countries, you cannot be prosecuted and punished in a criminal court for enslaving another human being.

Our findings displace one of the most basic assumptions made in the modern antislavery movement — that slavery is already illegal everywhere in the world. And they provide an opportunity to refocus global efforts to eradicate modern slavery by 2030, starting with fundamentals: getting states to completely outlaw slavery and other exploitative practices.

The findings emerge from our development of an anti-slavery database mapping domestic legislation against international treaty obligations of all 193 United Nations member states (virtually all countries in the world).

The database considers the domestic legislation of each country, as well as the binding commitments they have made through international agreements to prohibit forms of human exploitation that fall under the umbrella term “modern slavery”. This includes forced labour, human trafficking, institutions and practices similar to slavery, servitude, the slave trade, and slavery itself.