Sunday, March 25, 2007

Slavery today (John Miller)

Outlawing slavery has been one of the great and distinctive accomplishments of the modern era. I suspect that many people don't fully grasp what a startling historical innovation this has been. In the mid-19th century, slavery was often called "the peculiar institution." But in a larger socio-historical perspective, as Orlando Patterson has remarked, the adjective "peculiar" is itself a bit odd. Up until just a few centuries ago, slavery had been a normal and accepted institution in every civilization throughout recorded history.

Of course, there were significant variations in its scale, its specific forms, and its degrees of routine brutality. In some societies slavery was economically very important, whereas in others its economic role was peripheral (and its political, sexual, and/or ritual aspects were more significant); in some cases slavery was more or less racialized, in others it wasn't; and so on. In some societies, slaves constituted a major proportion of the population, in others a relatively minor one (though for many people in those societies the alternative to slavery was not freedom but a less extreme form of dependent status like serfdom). But slavery, in one form or another, was always a pervasive institution—present in every agrarian society as well as societies of pastoral nomadism and even many hunting-and-gathering societies.

This long history included many efforts by slaves to free themselves individually or as groups, including revolts (almost all unsuccessful in the end) and other forms of resistance. Obviously, slaves themselves generally didn't want to be enslaved, and the historical record suggests that their masters rarely had many illusions on this score. One can also find various expressions of uneasiness or ambivalence about the institution of slavery itself (a classic formulation of Roman law declared it to be, strictly speaking, against nature), and even some outright criticisms. But as far as I am aware, in all previous human history before the modern era we know of no serious attempts at the comprehensive abolition of slavery as an institution or even serious proposals for its abolition.

The abolition of slavery—or at least its outlawing—was the work of the past three centuries. The abolition of British slave trade in 1807 (properly celebrated by the recent film Amazing Grace) and the abolition of slavery itself throughout the British Empire in 1834 were important milestones in this process, though some European societies had already begun to declare slavery illegal in their home territories (as opposed to their overseas possessions) during the 1700s. In the 1790s there was a massive slave revolution in Haiti that, for the first time in history, successfully and permanently ended slavery through rebellion by slaves themselves. The abolition of very large-scale systems of slavery in the US in 1865 and in Brazil in 1888 are other well-known milestones. This process of formal abolition was eventually completed in the 20th century. (I believe that the last country to declare slavery illegal was Saudi Arabia in 1962.)

[Update: For another historic milestone, see Hispanic America & the end of slavery.]

=> Why did this happen—and, in particular, why did it happen to occur in this particular historical era and never before? That's a very big and contentious subject that I don't think I want to get into here, except to observe that the explanation is far from obvious. But one key point may we worth making.

This long-term effort to abolish slavery was a project initiated in one specific civilization, namely modern western civilization, and was extended to other civilizations in large part through western influence, pressure, and example. Pointing this out is not intended to encourage western triumphalism or excessive self-congratulation, but simply to recognize a historical reality—one that I think we still don't fully understand. There is a major historical irony associated with this story, since in the preceding few centuries western societies had developed one of the most gigantic and destructive slave systems in history to service their overseas possessions, especially in the western hemisphere. (The system that for centuries took slaves from sub-Saharan Africa to the Islamic Middle East may actually have affected more people over time, but its effects were much less historically concentrated.) But then history is full or ironies.

=> It's also important to emphasize that the formal abolition of slavery has not meant its disappearance in practice. We should not forget that the 20th century saw the systematic use of slave labor on a huge scale (often accompanied by mass murder and assorted other atrocities), for example as part of the standard operation of the Stalinist, Nazi, and Khmer Rouge regimes and some of their imitators. But most of these cases have turned out to be transitory. We should also remember that systems of straightforward, old-fashioned chattel slavery still exist de facto in a lot of places, even where they are officially illegal—for example, in countries like Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Chad, and Sudan in the Sahel belt along the southern edge of the Sahara.

However, even though such pockets of slavery continue to exist, I think it is important that the institution of slavery is now universally treated as illegitimate in international law and public discourse throughout the contemporary world. It has been fundamentally repudiated, in principle, by the moral culture of modernity. And even though millions of people in the world are now enslaved—or are trapped in conditions very close to slavery—it seems likely that these victims constitute a smaller proportion of the overall human population than at any previous time since the invention of agriculture. If one wants to look for evidence that there is actually moral progress in history, it seems to me that this long-term process of world-wide abolition and fundamental de-legitimization of slavery over the past several centuries offers one good example.

=> That's looking at the bright side. On the other hand, it is also essential to remember that slavery and other forms of bondage close to slavery continue to exist—and not only in backwaters like Sudan and Niger. As John Miller pointed out in a recent LA Times op-ed piece, "Nearly 200 years since the British ban, slavery still extends to all corners of the world—developing and advanced."
The existence of slavery in the 21st century comes as a shock to many Americans who believe that the institution ended with the Civil War. Although slavery today is not legal, it flourishes.

The international slave trade reaches into every country around the world and involves, at the least, a few million people and, by some estimates, as many as 27 million. It includes the old-fashioned buying, selling and owning of humans as well as many forms of sexual exploitation and "bonded" labor — in which people are held against their will and forced to work on farms or in factories to pay off obligations that never end.

In the so-called advanced countries, the largest category is sex slavery, which is linked to legalized or tolerated prostitution. [JW: A century ago, during another period that also saw a big upsurge in international migration, this was called the "white slave" trade.] In the Near East, the largest category is domestic-servitude slavery, fed by a massive migration of young women from South Asia. On the Indian subcontinent, the largest category is bonded-labor slavery of the lowest castes in rice mills, carpet factories and brick kilns. In Uganda and Sri Lanka, the largest category is child-soldier slavery. [....]
Slavery today
[....] is more gender-based than race-based — most victims are girls. In many instances it is linked to organized crime, and globalization plays a part as well.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the abolition of slavery remains an incomplete project—and one that will probably remain permanently unfinished..
This month marks the 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade in Britain, a first step toward full abolition in the British empire and later in the United States. That work was championed by hundreds of activists — among them William Wilberforce in England and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe in the United States — who nurtured a 19th century abolitionist movement. Now it falls on us, their descendants, to continue their work, nurturing a new abolitionist movement for the 21st century.
Read the rest.

(And for more on this subject, see The persistence of slavery. That also provides a link to the website of Anti-Slavery International, a good source of relevant information.)

—Jeff Weintraub

=========================
Los Angeles Times
March 13, 2007
Slaves among us
Nearly 200 years since the British ban, slavery still extends to all corners of the world--developing and advanced.
By John Miller

John Miller began working for the State Department on the issue of slavery in 2003. He was U.S. ambassador-at-large for modern-day slavery from 2004 to 2006. He now teaches in the international studies

The existence of slavery in the 21st century comes as a shock to many Americans who believe that the institution ended with the Civil War. Although slavery today is not legal, it flourishes.

The international slave trade reaches into every country around the world and involves, at the least, a few million people and, by some estimates, as many as 27 million. It includes the old-fashioned buying, selling and owning of humans as well as many forms of sexual exploitation and "bonded" labor — in which people are held against their will and forced to work on farms or in factories to pay off obligations that never end.

In the so-called advanced countries, the largest category is sex slavery, which is linked to legalized or tolerated prostitution. In the Near East, the largest category is domestic-servitude slavery, fed by a massive migration of young women from South Asia. On the Indian subcontinent, the largest category is bonded-labor slavery of the lowest castes in rice mills, carpet factories and brick kilns. In Uganda and Sri Lanka, the largest category is child-soldier slavery.

Modern slavery is more gender-based than race-based — most victims are girls. In many instances it is linked to organized crime, and globalization plays a part as well. Except for bonded-labor slavery, rarely does one find a victim in her hometown; she has been trafficked from one region to another or across international borders.

As U.S. ambassador-at-large on modern-day slavery, nothing moved me as much as the meetings I had all over the world with survivors. I did not believe slavery could exist in a democratic country until I met Katya in the Netherlands. Katya had left a failing marriage and a 2-year-old daughter in the Czech Republic when a "friend of the family" suggested that she go to Amsterdam, where she could make money as a waitress. She and other young women were driven across Europe by a Czech trafficker who turned them over to a Dutch trafficker. Katya's passport was seized, and she was driven to a brothel in Amsterdam's red-light district.

When Katya protested, explaining that she came to the Netherlands to work in a restaurant, the traffickers claimed that she owed them 20,000 euros for bringing her across Europe. When she refused to cooperate, she said, the traffickers told her that "you will if you want your daughter at home to live."

Katya succumbed, as have many in Western Europe, Japan and even the United States.

I met Susan in Minneapolis. Starting at age 13, she spent two decades terrorized by a pimp. At first she thought she loved him, but she soon realized she had no control, no way out. When Susan was rescued, she was penniless and so traumatized that she could not get on a bus alone.

Lord, a Laotian teenager I met in Thailand, was 11 when she was sold by her parents, then resold and finally deposited across the border in a Bangkok embroidery factory. Prevented from leaving the factory, given minimal food and clothing and no wages, Lord and other children sewed 14 hours a day. When she rebelled, she was banished to a closet as an example. Her owner poured industrial chemicals on her.

And there was Nour, a young Indonesian woman who came to Saudi Arabia to work as domestic help and send money home to her family. She was locked up by her masters, beaten and lost fingers and toes from gangrene.

Katya, Susan, Lord and Nour are more fortunate than most victims — they escaped or were rescued, and they survived. Katya had the help of a friendly taxi driver; Susan met outreach workers on the street who persuaded her to make a break; Lord was rescued by the police; and Nour was discovered at a hospital where she had been taken by her owners for "repairs."

There are signs of belated progress. When the U.S. passed its anti-trafficking law in 2000, only a handful of countries had such laws. In the last two years, 80 countries have passed similar legislation. Several years ago, the number of human traffickers sent to jail numbered in the hundreds. In 2005, the year of the most recent State Department statistics, that figure was 4,700. Over the last few years, hundreds of shelters have been set up around the world to care for survivors. Media coverage of the problem, and public awareness, has risen exponentially. And yet so much more remains to be done in every country, including the U.S.

What can Americans do? Support church and civic groups that help fight modern slavery abroad. Find out if there is an organization caring for survivors in your community and support it. Make sure local police are sensitive to and search out victims. Californians should make sure the state's 2005 anti-trafficking law and local anti-pimping ordinances are enforced.

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade in Britain, a first step toward full abolition in the British empire and later in the United States. That work was championed by hundreds of activists — among them William Wilberforce in England and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe in the United States — who nurtured a 19th century abolitionist movement. Now it falls on us, their descendants, to continue their work, nurturing a new abolitionist movement for the 21st century.
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FOR THE RECORD:
Slave trade: An article Tuesday about modern-day slavery said that March 2007 is the 400th anniversary of the ban on the British slave trade. It is the 200th anniversary.

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