Fighting Slavery in the Midst of War

Remarks to Expert Group Meeting on the impact of armed conflict on people’s vulnerability to trafficking in persons, including sexual and labour exploitation
Amman, Jordan

IMG_0669The repeated reports of Islamic State’s (DAESH) use of sexual slavery to entice foreign fighters and terrorise women and girls, and of Boko Haram’s kidnap of young girls in Nigeria and enslavement through forced marriage, has raised public awareness, and horror, regarding the issue of slavery and war.

Historically war has frequently been about slavery. Caesar made his wealth from the trafficking  of millions of Gauls. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was fed by the prisoners captured during wars provoked in Africa by the European powers. In Darfur and South Sudan slavery was used as a weapon to terrorise. Such violence remains a disgraceful aspect of war.

Over 2000 years ago Cicero noted that, “In times of war, the laws are silent,” because of the damage that war does to the institutions of state, and because it breaks the bonds of human restraint, as Shakespeare recognised, letting slip the dogs.

But it is useful to add a degree of gradation to Cicero’s observation, because not all times of war, or times of peace, are equal in their lawlessness.

First there is almost the absolute lawlessness that we see in the realm of active battlefronts and the rule of warlords.

Second there are those areas where war has severely damaged the capacity of the state and rule of law itself.

Third there are the armies of the democracies, which, even in war, should be bound by basic principles of law, even when in battle.

Then there is a further case, when the philosophy of law itself is intrinsically violent, misogynistic and anti-pathetic to human rights.

Under each of these circumstances there are differently constrained possibilities of action against trafficking and sexual violence. Certainly for there to be the greatest possibility for the elimination of such abuses there needs to be peace. But as we see surveying the world from Qatar to Western Europe peace alone is not enough, particularly if that peace is underpinned by brutal jurisprudence.

Sexual violence, like slavery, has always been an aspect of war. Sometimes rape has been raised to a level of policy, as was the case with, for example, the Russian conquest of eastern Germany in 1945, and is also the case in the realms of Islamic State (Daesh) today. This latter case should not be surprising given so much of the authoritarian culture and philosophy of violence of Daesh emanate from Saudi Arabia, a state in which rape victims are prosecuted and, in which, forced child marriage is widely tolerated. Such law and culture asserts that some sorts of violence, enslavement and trafficking, particularly of women and girls, are virtuous. It is from this jurisprudence that the slave markets of Boko Haram and Islamic State spring.

To put it bluntly, reducing violence against women and girls, particularly in the current wars waged by the proxies of Saudi Arabia, requires that their jurisprudence is explicitly and loudly repudiated, particularly as a priority for international diplomacy.

Until now neither the humanitarian nor development communities have in any significant way grasped the issues of slavery, trafficking or child labour. So they fail consistently to address them. There is a need for these sectors to recognise this, and to develop and implement training on slavery and trafficking for policy makers, including donors, and practitioners in these sectors.

Humanitarian assessments and peace-keeping planning should include components relating to trafficking analysis. And that should in turn lead to the enacting of measures to reduce the risks of trafficking for all, in particular women and girls. Furthermore all peace-keeping and humanitarian operations should have significant police or military police presence, with a mandate to investigate human trafficking and sexual violence, and with gender parity amongst such officers.

It should then be a requirement of every humanitarian response that it considers if it can contribute in any way towards the reduction of trafficking and violence in general and against women and girls in particular. This may not always be possible. But considering carefully the question could lead to the empowerment of some who would otherwise be overlooked.

The UK and California now require that companies report on what they are doing to end slavery in their supply chains. Development and humanitarian organisations should be required to follow suite, reporting on how they are seeking to combat this issue through their operations and supply chains. It should not be acceptable that, for example, the use of slavery-produced bricks should pass unconsidered and.unquestioned in humanitarian operations, when awareness of the issues and minor changes in humanitarian programming could establish much more ethical supply chains.

Elimination of slavery, trafficking and child labour is an explicit target in the Sustainable Development Goals. A long term solution to this is universal education, composed not only of reading, writing and arithmetic, but also human rights education, in particular in relation to  girls’ rights. Good vocational and entrepreneurial education is also needed so that greater options for decent work emerge from education. This would consequently reduce the level of attraction to nihilistic and misogynistic death cults, and will be an important path to recovery for children emerging from conflict.

But the immediate imperatives of trafficking and violence against women and girls in war demand urgent action. Humanitarian and development donors, policy-makers and practitioners must engage with these challenges.  Addressing the issue of trafficking in conflict, one of the most complex issues in the realm of anti-slavery, would help advance the overall struggle to end these human rights abuses. With that it would also help to reduce the poverty of people hitherto overlooked in the midst of war.

Journalism and Slavery: Some issues in reporting forced and child labour today

Thomson Reuters Foundation, 16 Nov 2015

imageIt is rare these days to come across anybody who explicitly supports slavery. Certainly there are those perpetrators who would like you to believe that they are doing their victims a favour. But by and large the political and business elites of the world are united in their condemnation of slavery, and will uniformly express anguish at the thought of children and vulnerable workers being subject to the cruelties of traffickers.  However that apparent consensus masks a more complex reality.

Slavery is a profoundly political issue, both in that it is about power and exclusion from power, and in that it is a hugely contentious subject touching upon some of the most disputed areas of international law and policy.

Indeed some even contend that slavery is not a political issue at all, that it is merely a technical one, and principally one of law enforcement at that. This perspective seems to be a favoured one of the current British Government, the Catholic Hierarchy of England and Wales, and a few naive philanthropists. They seem to regard the ending of slavery as a relatively straightforward matter that requires evil people to be locked up by decent cops.

There are however some profound problems with that view. For a start it presumes that slavery is everywhere illegal. But this is a tenuous presumption.

For example many of you will be familiar with the reports of systematic use of forced labour in Qatar to build the infrastructure for the World Cup. Or some of you may have seen the BBC Newsnight report from 12 Nov in which an Indian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia described have her arm chopped off by her employer as a punishment. It should be noted that the Saudi authorities dispute her account, saying she lost her arm “trying to escape”, and in denying complicity in mutilation they confirm complicity in slavery.

At the root of both these systems of enslavement is what is called the Kafala system, which is a “sponsorship” system that ties workers to their employers to such an extent that even in the most abusive employment relationships, up to and including forced labour, the workers cannot change jobs or even leave the country to go home.

It is a cynical system to legally facilitate medieval levels of exploitation up to and including slavery across the entire Arabian peninsula.

It is also essentially the same system that the UK government has in place for migrant domestic workers to this country. The UK system of overseas domestic workers visas ties workers to employers to such an extent that it de facto legalises the trafficking for forced domestic servitude. Migrant domestic workers know that if they try to leave the employer to whom their visa is tied, irrespective of their treatment, they will minimally be risking impoverishment and unemployment, and are likely to be deported. And that places in the hands of unscrupulous employers an enormously powerful threat to hold over the head of any vulnerable worker hoping to improve their own life and that of their family through hard work.

In other words the cases of UK overseas domestic workers, and Arabian kafala show how too frequently the law, intentionally or otherwise, can be a means to facilitate enslavement.

Furthermore for law enforcement to be the only approach necessary to end slavery also presumes that genuine rule of law exists in a jurisdiction, rather than laws being regarded as merely suggestions to the elite. For example in India there is much decent anti-slavery law. And yet, corrupt police forces and overburdened court systems mean that such law is meaningless for those, such as Dalits and Adavasi, most vulnerable to slavery.

We saw this in the course of a piece of research that we did into forced and child labour in Indian garment manufacture. In this we spoke to children who worked in some of the garment workshops of Delhi. They told us that the only encounters they had with the police were when they were arrested and held as hostages to stop work because their employers had not paid the appropriate bribes.

In India there is also such limited labour inspection that it will never trouble those factory owners who enslave young women and girls to produce the cotton thread that doubtless forms a sizeable percentage of the garments we are each wearing this morning.

A few years ago I met a young woman journalist who was trying to write a positive story on the efforts to end the various forms of slavery in Indian textiles. She was threatened with arrest by the Indian police as an economic terrorist. I fear what sort of threats journalists or civil society in India would now face if they were to try to expose such abuses, given the increasing intolerance and clamp-downs on freedom of speech that Prime Minister Modi is enacting.

So: when you consider the contemporary manifestations of slavery and child labour across the world we see that an alternative perspective is necessary to the simplistic law enforcement one, one that recognises that slavery emerges in the opportunities for exploitation that are presented to unscrupulous individuals in national and international law and policy as it relates in particular to education and human development, employment, trade, migration and rule of law itself.

This perspective illuminates that there is much greater responsibility for slavery than evil criminal godfathers or unscrupulous business executives. Because slavery can only really thrive where governments fail to in their duties of promoting human development and protecting human rights.

A few weeks ago I was visiting cocoa-growing communities in Ghana. There the risk of child labour is exacerbated by the fact that too few of those communities have schools, and even if the kids get to school there is so little provision of vocational and entrepreneurial education for adolescents and young adults that many of them become vulnerable to trafficking for forced labour once they leave school, as they follow risky paths in search of scarce decent work.

And in India Prime Minister Modi intends to reduce factory inspections, and permit child labour as a means of reinforcing the caste system, amongst other so-called labour market reforms. Whatever Modi’s intention the consequence will be to make forced and child labour abuses much more likely across India and hence increase the likelihood that any goods or commodities produced there are tainted by slavery like practices.

In short: if, as journalists, you want to judge whether a government, or anyone for that matter, is actually against slavery it will require a deeper consideration of their policies and practices.

The UK government claims that it wishes to be a world leader in the struggle against slavery. And yet just this month Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, said that human rights is no longer a priority in the Foreign Office, and instead was supplanted by the”prosperity” agenda.

We see that reflected in the warm embrace the British government has given to Prime Minister Modi and the prospect of trade deals with an India whose supply chains are rife with forced and child labour, and, even more bizarrely, with Saudi Arabia, who remain valued partners in spite of their systematic and entrenched practices of slavery, their intent to crucify a child for protesting for democracy, and their creation and sponsorship of DAESH, Islamic State.

Billy Connolly once said, ”Hypocrisy is the Vaseline of political intercourse”.

We see that clearly in relation to much of the contemporary political discourse on slavery, were many politicians and a few philanthropist crave the title “the new Wilberforce” after the British parliamentarian who obtained the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 19th Century. However, unlike Wilberforce, most of these lack the moral courage or clarity of thought to challenge the vested interests and the political-economic structures that enable so much contemporary slavery.

We see this hypocrisy also in relation to the poisonous immigration debate across Europe. We have seen how establishing safe migration for vulnerable workers is a key issue in ending trafficking. Both the Arabian kafala system and the UK’s systems of tied visas offer opportunities of legal migration to poor working people that are little more than supply channels for the provision of forced labour to traffickers.

But the discussions on safe international migration remain mired in xenophobic cant, which both confuses and is confused by the political discourse on trafficking.

At the height of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean this summer, we heard the insistent descriptions by European politicians of those who were facilitating transport of refugees across the Mediterranean as “traffickers”. Trafficking, by definition, is the movement of people for the purposes of forced labour or sexual exploitation. It was very clear, very quickly from diligent reporters on the ground in the Mediterranean that what was going on was not trafficking but the facilitation of smuggling. It is true that once these refugees get to Europe that they will be highly vulnerable to traffickers. But this is at least as much because of the failure of Europe’s leaderships to establish safe and legal migration routes, as it is anything to do with the smugglers.

To this day journalists lazily pick up this language from government press releases and repeat it as if it were objective and neutral fact. I heard on the BBC Today programme just last week smugglers being referred to as traffickers. In doing so journalists play into the hands of those politicians who wish to disguise their inaction in the face of the moral imperative of this refugee crisis by the conflation of smuggling and trafficking. By obfuscating the issues they seek to buy political breathing space in the face of the mounting carnage. When faced with the horrors of the Mediterranean this summer, it was easier for politicians to make grand statements blaming migrant deaths on evil traffickers rather than doing their jobs by seeking the causes of the crisis and identifying more effective responses.

The idea of journalism as a Fourth Estate to hold the powerful to account is a foundational one in modern democratic society. But the powerful who benefit from slavery are not used to being held to account. Often they are used to wealth and respect within their own societies, and to warm receptions in international capitals as “partners in prosperity”. They have been protected in recent years first by the comforting myth that slavery was a thing of the past, and latterly by a new set of fairytales: such as the idea that all that is needed is better policing, or that a few cosy words between the rich and powerful are all that is necessary to uproot the entrenched systems of violence and prejudice that underpin contemporary slavery

imageThe ending of slavery needs many things. But it certainly needs courageous journalism to confront this nonsense and to expose to the scrutiny of citizens the realities of slavery in our contemporary world, and the power structures that underpin it.

Doing that may never be a popular job. But it is a vital one.

Good luck.

The Greatest Game Ever Played – A movie even for those who, quite rightly, hate golf

imageAs I write Shia LaBoeuf is, as a work of performance art, watching all his movies, back-to-back, in reverse chronological order. Which means that towards the end of this marathon feat of endurance through his sometimes terrible ouvere, he is rewarded with at least one good movie – The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Directed by the actor Bill Paxton, The Greatest Game Ever Played, is based on the true story of the of the 1913 US golf open. But it is a film that is about much more than an extra-ordinary game of golf. The film also deals directly with the class tensions of the early twentieth century and touches upon the profound anti-Catholic prejudices of both the British and American establishments. But at heart the film is about that perennial favourite of triumph against the odds.

imageThe acting is exemplary throughout. Stephen Dillane is excellent as usual as the great British golfer Harry Vardane. Josh Flitter, as a ten year old caddy, steals every scene in which he appears. But the revelation of the movie is Shia LaBoeuf: After a career which to that point had been principally marked by his slap-stick performances in the children’s programme “Even Stevens”, and which subsequently has been marked with poor movie choices and increased eccentricity, LaBoeuf delivers a disciplined, dignified and highly sympathetic performance as a working class Franco-Irish kid fighting his way through the prejudices of the New England WASP establishment.

An old fashioned movie in the best sense of the word: fine acting, clear directing and a great story that grips to the end – the final scene an affectionate nod to Casablanca is just one of the many pleasures that fill a great movie.

Perhaps, as he watches this, Shia LaBoeuf may reflect on the considerable promise he showed as a younger actor, and reflect that it is never too late to be what you might have been.

Anti-Slavery International remains a voice of moral courage in the world

Speech to Annual General Meeting of Anti-Slavery International, 2015

It is an honour and a pleasure to be here once again at Anti-Slavery’s Annual General Meeting, which I think must be our 176th.

imageThis past year in the UK much of the focus of our work has been on on the Modern Slavery Act, and the repercussions of that still occupy us. But it is worth remembering that when the government first published its draft bill it was straightforward criminal justice measure, and an underwhelming one at that. There was no mention of forced labour in business supply chains and nothing on victim protection, both ideas which the government was vocally contemptuous of at the outset. As a result of diligent work by Anti-Slavery staff with our allies in civil society and in parliament this was changed. But the positive measures that we and our allies pressed the government into including in that Act were but a portion of our achievements last year.

For example:

• we helped establish a new organisation exposing slavery and forced labour in Thailand, something for which Anti-Slavery has been very warmly recognised in the region;

• we were instrumental in the development of a law in Senegal providing the basis for State regulation of Qur’anic schools and prohibition of forced child begging;

• we expanded our Migrant Domestic Work Programme both to Bangladesh and India; and

• we published guidance for practitioners on trafficking for forced criminality.

This is a considerable breadth of achievement and the breadth of our work and ambition continues,

• ranging from our transparency in supply chains work emerging not only from our work on the Modern Slavery Act, but also from our continuing work to end child labour in cocoa supply chains in West Africa and from the light we helped shine on the slavery abuses in the Thai fishing industry; to

• our continuing work to help end bonded labour in India’s brick kilns, to

• our ongoing demonstrations in West Africa and Nepal of the importance of education as a means of breaking the transmission of slavery across generations.

These add to a body of achievements over the past five years that have included decisive contributions to changing national and international law, exposure of slavery across the world and empowerment of slavery affected communities.

I think it is worth reflecting upon this body of achievements, taken together, for a moment. First of all none of this would have been possible without the steadfast backing of the organisation by members and supporters over these years, and I would like to take the opportunity to convey my heartfelt thanks for this.

Second, as you will all be aware, these past five years have not been the easiest in Anti-Slavery’s history. Among other things this is because of the difficulties in the external environment, and because we have looked at a world in which millions of children, women and men are enslaved, we have found that unacceptable. So, rather than rest on our laurels, we have chosen to strive to do more to end it, something that brings with it more work, and increased struggle.

As our strategy makes plain, Anti-Slavery was founded to end slavery and we remain the vital organisation that is instrumental in doing that.

I recall when I was being interviewed for this job I mentioned how important I thought it was for poverty reduction that slavery should be eradicated. And this is an issue on which Anti-Slavery has been publicly campaigning since 2007. That it is now recognised as such in the Sustainable Development Goals is, I believe, a singular achievement and not one that would have been obtained without Anti-Slavery’s pressure through long years when we were a lone voice on the issue. As late as November 2013 I was being told by senior figures in some of the newer anti-slavery organisations that such a thing was unachievable.

And yet we achieved it.

Earlier this year I had the honour of being invited to speak at the annual gathering at Westminster Abbey in commemoration of Thomas Clarkson. It was a memorable occasion for me in that it brought together not just Clarkson’s relatives but also Buxtons and descendants of Wilberforce, with myself, and Reggie Norton and Klara Skrivankova representing Anti-Slavery.

It led me to reflect on the reasons we remember with warmth and admiration Clarkson, and Wilberforce, and Buxton, and Equiano, and Lincoln, and Morell, and Casement.

For example in the film The Ladykillers the filmmakers called the little old lady “Mrs Wilberforce” because they wanted the audience to understand that she represented the very best of British society.

But this belovedness was not always the case. The leaders in the struggle against slavery were hated by many in their day because of the choices they made to try to obtain a more just society: Clarkson’s life was threatened, Lincoln was assassinated; Morrell’s health was broken doing hard labour in prison; Casement was the last knight of the realm to be executed for high treason.

But the reason why we remember them still, the reason they were on the right side of history, is that they displayed that very rare quality of moral courage: they were prepared to stand alone in the face of the received political and economic wisdom and the prevailing social attitudes and pressures and put their names to the assertion that, “The world is unjust because humans have made it so. And if we make different moral and political choices, as we must do, that we can change that.”

Anti-Slavery continues to be that voice of moral courage in the contemporary world. That doesn’t always make us popular. It often demands hard choices and difficult decisions. But it is that moral courage that has led to the achievements that we have spoken of this evening and the ones that we will speak of in years to come.

Many of the vested interests who benefit from slavery across the world would love us to go away, or to acquiesce in the comforting myth that the only thing that is now needed to end slavery is for decent cops to lock up evil criminals.

But we cannot go away, we will not go away so long as slavery remains a blight on our human society because of the way humans with power have structured law and policy, nationally and internationally. We will continue to add our voice to those of our comrades across the world struggling to end slavery in their own countries and communities.

At the close of 2015 we can say we have forced the issue of slavery back onto the international development agenda. Now comes the hard part: turning that line in a UN document into a programme of international action.

So long as we endure our supporters and members can be confident that this is what we will be working for, no matter what obstacles are thrown in our path.