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.

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