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.

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