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History of modern slavery

Though banished as a thing of the past, slavery continues to flourish in the modern world with a new façade and changed hues of oppression

History of modern slavery

The international day for the abolition of slavery was on December 2. The day is annually observed to raise awareness around the atrocities of modern slavery, reminding people that modern bondage works against human rights. The United Nations considers bonded labour, forced labour, child labour and trafficking people as modern forms of slavery. According to official sources, there are about 25 million people around the world entrapped in some form of slavery today, of which, more than one million are children used as forced labour and for sexual exploitation. They are the ones who are abused, exploited and denied rightful freedom. Undocumented cases are undoubtedly much higher. Modern slavery is a global problem. It goes against Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states that "no one shall be held in slavery or servitude. Slaves and slave trade shall be prohibited in all forms". The UDHR that was adopted by the UN General Assembly at its third session on December 10, 1948, drew inspiration from the Nuremberg trials of 1945, where slavery was recognised as an abhorrent crime against humanity.

This international day had originated from the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons, resolution 317 (iv) of December 2, 1949. To remember the convention, a working group of UN on slavery recommended in 1985 that December 2 be proclaimed the World Day for the abolition of slavery in all its forms. By 1995, the day was known as the International Day. The day was first observed in 1986 – and this year, it has completed 33.

Modern slavery has evolved from classical slavery through a process of mutation. Classical slavery served a strong economic interest. It was concerned with the growth of capitalism, colonisation and imperialism of the western world. Modern slavery exploits the poor and the vulnerable and seriously violates human rights and dignity. In classical slavery, transatlantic trade and ownership of slaves circumscribed the principal features. In modern slavery, slaves suffer alienation from the social and institutional order and are denied human benefits of the modern world. Modern slavery affects people from the most vulnerable groups, regardless of their nationality. They are asylum seekers, refugees, illegal immigrants, homeless people, oppressed, destitute, persons with perpetual debt bondage and children. Fruits of development in the 21st century have evaded and bypassed them. They remain trapped for life.

Slavery has ancient roots in history. It had existed on nearly every continent, including Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas and throughout most of recorded history. The ancient Greeks and Romans accepted the institution of slavery. Europeans began importing slaves from Africa to the New World beginning in the 16th century. About 12 million people were taken from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, mostly by Great Britain and USA, the world's two biggest slave-trading powers. By the mid-19th century, the slave population in the US had risen to more than five million. Most slaves worked on plantations in the South under harsh conditions requiring regular replenishment. Their status was governed by slave codes. They had no legal rights. In court, their testimony was inadmissible in cases involving whites. They could not own any property. They could not assemble unless a white person was present.

Karl Marx considered the enslavement of African people as fundamental to rising capitalism, not only in the New World but in Europe as well. According to him, direct slavery was just as much the pivot of bourgeoisie industry as machinery and credits. To him, it was slavery that had given the colonies their value. His observation that Africa had been turned into a warren for hunting blacks was an appropriate commentary on the lives and living conditions of the slaves. By 1807-08, Great Britain and USA had abolished export and trading of slaves from Africa. In fact, it was the French Revolution of 1789 and campaigns by Napoleon that the transport of slaves from Africa started becoming insignificant. UNESCO observes August 23 every year as the international day for the remembrance of slave trade and its abolition.

Slave trade was made illegal in Britain and its colonies through the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. A year later, the United States also officially abandoned slave trade without altering its internal trade in slaves. Abolition of slave trade, however, did not abolish slavery. Slaves remained slaves. They were not emancipated by legislative enactment. Following the rise of the abolitionist movement and the tremendous pressure the abolitionists exerted on British Parliament, Britain outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1833 freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa. France did the same in 1848. USA had to wait till 1863. From abolition of slave trade to the abolition of slavery, USA took 55 years.

Cotton plantations in the southern states of the US had turned slavery into an economic asset too valuable ever to be willingly surrendered. American abolitionism and members of the Anti- Slavery Society struggled under the handicap that it threatened the harmony of North and South in the Union. It also ran counter to the US Constitution, which left the question of slavery to the individual states. The Abolitionists called the Constitution "a covenant with Death and an agreement with Hell". With the 1860 presidential victory of Abraham Lincoln, seven southern states whose economy was based on cotton decided to secede and form a new nation. The American Civil War broke out in April 1861. "If slavery is not wrong," said Abraham Lincoln, "then nothing is wrong. The Union could not permanently endure half slave, half free". Karl Marx called the American Civil War the second war of independence.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation can with an executive order of the US government on January 1, 1863, changing the legal status of about three million slaves of the Confederacy from slave to free human beings. Slaves were legally freed by the Proclamation and became actually free by escaping to Union Army lines. Many served the federal army as non-combatants and soldiers. The 13th amendment to the US Constitution took effect in December 1865 and finally ended slavery all over the United States. The awful injustice came to an end.

However, slavery was not consigned to history with its successful abolition in the 19th century. It continues to prevail today in many different forms and harms people in every country in the world. However, the existence of modern slavery is not officially recognised by any government. Despite UN efforts to spread awareness about the scourge of modern slavery, the number of victims is not showing any signs of decline. It is rather on a rise. According to Anti- Slavery International, there are more than 40 million people trapped in modern slavery around the world, of which 10 million are children. That means, there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in history. Modern slavery is less about people literally owning other people. It is more about being exploited and completely controlled by someone else without consent or the ability to leave.

There are about 25 million people in forced labour. A coordinated effort by governments and activists around the world could bring an end to this inhuman practice of forced labour. That is what the ILO's Protocol on forced labour is all about. Slavery is more likely to exist in countries with weak implementation of the rule of law, poor governance and rampant corruption. It is not difficult to isolate those countries. The focus of December 2 is on eradicating modern forms of slavery and creating an egalitarian society where human beings can live with dignity. Much of modern slavery is concealed, disguised and invisible. It exists but without a trace of evidence. Not many case studies are available for scientific analysis. Unless governments of the day recognise the prevalence of slavery, the problem will never be solved in today's enlightened world. The problem will always remain in the darkness. The UDHR declaration will forever remain a distant dream.

(The writer is a former central civil service officer retired from the Ministry of Defence. The views expressed are strictly personal)

H Khasnobis

H Khasnobis

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