STILL WITH US
Mar 9th 2005
A botched release of slaves in Niger points up an ugly truth: bondage is alive and well around the world
SLAVERY is like polio. Most westerners associate it with earlier, darker times in human history. Its eradication is a sign of human progress. And yet despite these perceptions slavery, like polio, has not in fact been eradicated. The fact of modern slavery was brought home again this week by the story of a botched manumission in Niger.
Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human rights group, estimates that 43,000 slaves are held in Niger, which the United Nations reckons to be the second-least-developed country in the world. Slaves in the landlocked west African country form a stigmatised, closed class. Even freed slaves carry the taint of their hereditary status, and their former masters or parents' masters may claim some or all of their income, property and dowries.
In 2003, Niger finally got around to amending its laws to make slave ownership punishable with up to 30 years in prison. (The practice was outlawed with Niger's independence from France in 1960, but carried no penalty.) Facing jail, a chieftain in western Niger offered to free the 7,000 slaves held by him and his clansmen in a public ceremony, due to take place on Saturday March 5th. But in the week leading up to the event, Niger's government came to fear that a massive release of slaves would draw unwelcome attention to slavery's existence in the country. The government declared that slavery does not exist in Niger, the ceremony was cancelled and the slaves left as slaves. Far from avoiding a public embarrassment, Niger has multiplied its worldwide shame.
Niger is far from alone. Its class-based form of slavery exists in neighbouring Chad, Mali and Mauritania, too. In Mauritania, estimates SOS Esclaves, another anti-slavery campaigner, 40% of the population are slaves or ex-slaves, who suffer the same stigma and lack of rights as their brethren in Niger. In Sudan, too, slavery is widespread. Some 14,000 people were abducted and forced into slavery during the country's two-decade-long civil war between the Arab-run government in Khartoum and blacks in the south. Most of these were women and children forced into domestic work and herding. Many children of abductees, fathered by the slaves' masters, in turn become slaves. Around 12,000 Sudanese remain in bondage. And according to a recent UN report, abduction and slavery have been extended to Darfur in western Sudan, where a separate conflict rages.
Most people associate "slavery" with the transatlantic chattel slave trade that ended in the 19th century as the United States and later Brazil, the biggest recipients of black African slaves, abolished first the trade and then the practice of slavery itself. But slavery persisted, so much so that the UN made 2004 the snappily-titled International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition. December 2nd 2004 was designated the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, to commemorate the adoption of a 1949 convention against human trafficking. But that convention is still widely flouted.
The form of slavery that perhaps affects the greatest number of people is bonded labour, which is particularly rife in India, Pakistan and Nepal. Desperate workers are given a loan for as little as the cost of medication for a child, and are forced to work to repay the loan and "interest". But no clear contract is offered--the unfortunate bonded labourer often winds up working years to repay such loans, and the bond is even often passed on to children after the original labourer's death. Because of the apparently voluntary nature of the bondage, many do not see it as slavery. But the labourer is often so desperate for a loan, without other sources of credit, that there is little real choice involved. And once bonded, the threat of violence and the limitations on personal freedom involved make the practice in effect no different from chattel slavery.
Many other slavery-type practices remain widespread, despite having been forbidden by UN conventions. These include forced marriage, wife-transfer, child marriage and the sale of children for labour. In Brazil, forced labourers clear Amazonian jungle at gunpoint. In western Europe, prostitutes from the former Soviet block are forced to work without any choice of which or how many clients they sleep with, and with the threat or use of force curtailing their freedom. And in the United States, Free the Slaves, another anti-slavery group, found illegal forced labour in at least 90 cities, involving over 19,000 people. The CIA has estimated the number of slaves in America at 50,000. Chinese, Mexicans, Vietnamese and others work against their will in the sex trade, domestic service, farms and sweatshops.
In America and Europe, there is at least some hope of recourse to the authorities. India and Pakistan have banned debt bondage but struggle to enforce the law. Sudan is a criminal state actively encouraging rampaging militias. And Niger has been a rickety democracy for just over five years, unable even to admit its problem, much less tackle it. Like many things that should have been stamped out a long time ago, slavery, it seems, is alive and well.
See this article with graphics and related items at http://www.economist.com/agenda/displayStory.cfm?story_id=3737154