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Just a few days ago, on December 2, the UN marked International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. Ban Ki-Moon, during his speech, said 'The United Nations estimates that there are more than 18 million people kept as slave labourers. Each day, women are trafficked, sold and locked in brothels. Every day, young girls are forcibly married, sexually abused or exploited as domestic workers. Twenty-five years after the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, boys and girls are still working in appalling conditions. Men, separated from their families, are still being locked in clandestine factories, working in situations of bonded labour with negligible wages and remote chances of ever repaying their debts'.
Quite a lot of uncomfortable and sensitive political and moral issues are raised when we go deep into the history of slavery. But when G. Santana, a naturalist and philosopher wrote ‘those who cannot remember the past (history) are condemned to repeat it’, was he right in predicting that this would become a ‘meaningless’ phrase, which is frequently used by the same individuals, who are set to live out the doom of their historical ignorance?
What is even disappointing is that, even today, there is a high tendency for many people to trivialize the topic of slavery, to portray it as an issue of ‘black and white”, ‘good versus evil’. The visible result of this somewhat careless attitude is the birth of an assumption that being morally right is more important than logic and truth.
Now, talking trans-Atlantic slavery, it may be surprising to discover that this activity was indeed legal at the time, and for a few people who wanted to be different or maybe even indifferent, it raised very serious concerns about where we were headed as one big family, humankind.
Centuries ago in Europe, Roman law made provision for fathers, otherwise know as paterfamilias (head of a Roman family), to be able to sell their children, whenever they were in need of money. On the other side of the continent, tens of millions of Africans were taken into slavery, considered as property and not humans.
The legacy of these events have throughout our lifetime, been subjects for discussion and debate. No doubt, slavery and slave trade brought about quite a lot of significant and undesirable changes to the lives of many people, especially Africans: language, culture and of course religion. Another controversial idea that many different scholars have introduced is that, slavery “disadvantaged” the African continent permanently, compared to other parts of the world.
Fast-forward to 2002, 57th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. As per the request of the General Conference of UNESCO, 2004 was proclaimed as the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition.
What is going on today, is proof-positive, that humanity has failed to learn from its past. What I aim to do is to draw your attention to some of the similarities and even differences between the present and past practices. It’s very fair to say that a lot of changes have taken place over the past three centuries or so; significant progress has been made in ending slavery. But this mission is very far from complete.
Slavery, with strict reference to the 1926 Slavery Convention, is defined as the ‘status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised’. Beyond that, law also establishes the term: ‘institutions or practices similar to slavery’, as found in the 1956 Supplementary Convention, which sets out four servile statuses: debt bondage, serfdom, as well as specific types of servile marriage and child exploitation.
Unarguably, modern slavery covers a broad range of practices: child labor, children in conflict, trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation, and the sale of children. The International Labor Office (ILO) approaches the topic through the lens of forced labor. The ILO recognizes “slavery and abductions, compulsory participation in public work projects, forced labor in agriculture, domestic workers, bonded labor, forced labor imposed by the military, forced labor in the trafficking of persons, as well as some aspects of prison labor and rehabilitation through work”.
Truth to be told: slavery is now globalized, and has become an integral part of the process of globalization. Hilary Clinton calls it “the dark belly of globalization”. Modern slavery has thrived very well in the midst of poverty and the unbelievably high gap between the standards of living of people around the world.
The plight of migrants, aiming to live a better life in the countries they find themselves in, is nothing to be excited about. Victims often do not even speak the language of the receiving country, and are not able to find help. Here, we find ambitious men, women, and sometimes kids, trapped as slaves. This is surprisingly prevalent in many countries of the world.
I dare to say that modern slavery may be the world's most under-publicized human rights crisis. Born and raised in the developing world, I have come to appreciate the fact that modern slavery is intimately related to the struggle for gender equality and other important issues, including access to potable water, adequate food, health care, and education.
Theoretically, international players on countless occasions, have reaffirmed their commitment to the purposes and principles contained in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They have also listened to the peoples of the world and recognized the aspirations of the lay man to justice, to equality of opportunity for all and everyone, and to the enjoyment of his or her human rights, including the right to development, to live in peace and freedom and to equal participation without discrimination in economic, social, cultural, civil and political life.
There are 29.8 million people living as slaves right now, according to a comprehensive new report issued by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation. A modern terminology for this would be human trafficking, a term which is defined as the act, under threat of violence, do not have the choice to leave their circumstances. In spite of the existence of robust laws the vast majority of victims remain enslaved.
It is essential that we begin to create awareness and compel the public to take a stance on behalf of those without voices. If we could ever stop slavery, it would begin with us.
Craig Keilburger argues: ‘It’s easier to be ignorant and say I don’t know about the problem. But once you know, once you’ve seen it in their eyes, then you have a responsibility to do something. There is strength in numbers, and if we all work together as a team, we can be unstoppable’.