Norway vowed on Wednesday to ramp up its fight against modern slavery, becoming the second country after Niger to approve a United Nations treaty designed to give countries the legal muscle to combat forced labour and trafficking.
The UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) is aiming to persuade at least 50 countries by 2018 to sign up to the protocol which includes measures to prevent modern forms of slavery as well as protecting and compensating victims.
An estimated 21 million people are in forced labour worldwide, generating about $150 billion a year in illicit profits, according to the ILO. Many are enslaved in brothels, farms, fisheries, factories, construction and domestic service.
Beate Andrees, who heads the ILO's programme to tackle forced labour, said the drive for a new set of legal tools to tackle slavery was key in the global battle against this crime.
"[This] will help millions of children, women and men reclaim their freedom and dignity," Andrees said on the sidelines of the Trust Women conference on women's rights and trafficking hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Countries ratifying the treaty, which modernises a forced labour convention from 1930, will have to change laws to improve victim protection and remedies, including compensation and access to justice.
"It protects victims from prosecution if they have committed a crime as a consequence of their enslavement or trafficking," Andrees said, citing the example of trafficking victims forced to smuggle drugs.
She said it was "sym2bolic" that Niger was the first country to ratify the treaty in June then followed by a European nation.
"What it tells us is that it's not just a problem of the developing world. It's a problem everywhere," she said.
The US State Department's annual trafficking report described Norway as a destination and, to a lesser extent, a transit and source country for women and girls subjected to sex trafficking and for men and women subjected to forced labour in domestic service, nursing, car washing, and construction.
Trafficking victims identified in Norway primarily come from Eastern Europe, particularly Albania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Romania, and from Africa, particularly Nigeria. But there are also rising numbers of Syrians trafficked to Norway.
However while about 2,000 potential trafficking victims received assistance in Norway between 2007 and 2013 authorities have only secured 35 convictions since 2003, the report said, suggesting greater action was needed.
Steffen Kongstad, Norway's ambassador to the United Nations and other international organisations, said it was important for all countries to make eradicating slavery a top priority.
Norway's ratification was key as the treaty needs the official approval of two countries to come into force and allow the ILO to hold governments to account. The treaty will enter into force in a year's time, the ILO said.
Several European countries are expected to follow Norway in coming months after world leaders pledged to end forced labour as part of the UN's new global goals adopted in September.
"The clock is ticking now," Andrees said.