Splendid Isolation? North Korean slavery – not as distant as you might think

There is much international human rights law in the world, and in its midst there is a significant body of law on slavery.

But in spite of all this slavery is still widespread across the world. This is so for a number of reasons. First slavery is still in many places legal.

It is effectively legal in Saudi Arabia. In Qatar and United Arab Emirates the Kafalah system provides a legal underpinning for the enslavement by migrant workers by private individuals. In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan state-sponsored forced labour, particular in the cotton harvest, is used for the enrichment of the elites. In the United Kingdom trafficking of overseas domestic workers has de facto been legalised.

Slavery is also deeply institutionalised in North Korea, and as with Uzbekistan and img_0794Tajikistan, it is used to sustain the privilege and power of that country’s elite.
But, while the world often sees North Korea as an isolated place, consideration of the issue of North Korean slavery shows that it is not nearly so much an isolated thing.

The 2015 United States Trafficking in Persons report notes that, “Chinese authorities continued to forcibly repatriate some North Korean refugees by treating them as illegal economic migrants, despite reports some North Korean female refugees in China were trafficking victims. The government detained and deported such refugees to North Korea, where they may face severe punishment, even death, including in North Korean forced labor camps. The Chinese government did not provide North Korean trafficking victims with legal alternatives to repatriation. The government continued to bar [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] access to North Koreans in northeast China; the lack of access to UNHCR assistance and forced repatriation by Chinese authorities left North Koreans vulnerable to traffickers. Chinese authorities sometimes detained and prosecuted citizens who assisted North Korean refugees and trafficking victims, as well as those who facilitated illegal border crossings”.

All of this is contrary to China’s obligations to protect victims of trafficking under the Palermo Protocol of which they are a signatory. China’s failure provides means for Chinese traffickers to coerce their victims with the threat of denunciation to the Chinese authorities. It further sustains the institutional practices of slavery in which North Korea indulges, by effectively enforcing North Korea’s policies beyond its borders.

I would caution the rest of the world from getting too judgemental about this too quickly though. Here we see China indulging in something that the rest of the world also does: erasing an inconvenient slavery problem by the simple assertion, made with great conviction, that it is not actually a problem of slavery. Suggest to any Home Office minister or official that the UK’s overseas domestic worker visa is a license to traffick, and you will see this process in action here.

And of course the complicity with North Korean slavery is not restricted to China. In November 2014 the journalist Pete Pattisson exposed in the Guardian how North Korea trafficked construction workers to Qatar for work on the diverse building projects there.

As I noted at the outset Qatar has legal mechanisms in place to facilitate the enslavement of vulnerable workers by private individuals. One of the consequences of this is that the 2022 World Cup is likely to be the bloodiest sporting event since Julius Caesar’s funeral games. That fact has not caused the repudiation of Qatar in any international forums.

What Pete’s journalism exposed however is one of the sources of hard currency that props up the North Korean dictatorship is from North Korea’s sale of its people internationally. And that again has not caused any sort of repudiation of Qatar or those countries which also avail of the cheap labour of trafficked North Koreans. In October 2015 the UN Special Rapportuer on Human Rights in North Korea estimates that 50,000 North Korean workers are employed in foreign countries, mainly in the mining, logging, textile and construction industries and that the number is rising.

The UN Special Rapporteur estimated that the vast majority are working in China and Russia but others are reportedly employed in countries including Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, United Arab Emirates and, of course, Qatar. If North Korea obtains only $10,000 per worker per annum this traffick in human beings would be worth half a billion annually to the dictatorship.

A fundamental issue that we see in many slavery cases, and exemplified in relation to North Korea, is that it is an international issue and needs therefore to be tackled internationally. The importance of international law, and international rule of law is exemplified in relation to North Korea. I suspect that like the UK China’s equivalent of the ministerial code has no mention of international law and so ministers considering their policy in relation to North Korean refugees and victims of trafficking are able to lightly dismiss their human rights obligations and those under the Palermo protocol.

The case of North Korea also shows that slavery must become a central issue of diplomacy. The easy acquiescence that the international community has in the slavery practices of other countries, aside from its moral bankruptcy, is also now a security risk. If the North Korean elite were not obtaining hard currency from the international trafficking of its citizens it would be that much more difficult for the dictatorship to cling to power.

I wonder do many consumers consider the risk of North Korean forced labour in garments that they purchase from China. Whether they do or not again the issue of the enslavement of North Korean exposes the need for new international law. Franklin Roosevelt effectively ended child labour in the United States by banning its use in inter-state commerce. President Obama has taken a leaf from Roosevelt’s book in introducing powers to exclude slavery tainted sea-food from the US.

The European Union should follow suite and establish similar general powers that could be used against the import or any goods manufactured with the use of forced labour, including that for trafficked North Koreans. Such a measure would have repercussions through the entire global political economy by causing real economic threat to those countries that have come to routinely use forced labour of vulnerable workers.

We see much that is horrible and distressing when we look at the institutions of slavery in North Korea, including our own reflection: that of the rest of the world at best standing idly by, at worst benefiting.

That needs to come to an end, not merely with fine words, but with robust and clear sighted international action. I hope the UK, for as long as it is part of Europe, will begin to provide proper leadership on this and bring the authority of the world’s largest single market to bear on this vital human rights issue.

Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast, by Kevin Myers

 Summary: The Troubles through the prism of Kevin Myers’ favourite subject – himself

Kevin Myers is one of the finest writers of his generation. An exquisite prose stylist, he is the author of some of the most compelling and elegantly written journalism of the past 40 years.

He is also an arsehole of the first order: If the Oxford English Dictionary is considering a pictorial edition they would probably include a picture of Myers to illustrate the term “West Brit”. Since the events covered in this book Myers has transformed himself into a smart-arsed apologist of the establishment, frequently economical with the facts where they may conflict with his opinions. Indeed, if there is an entry for “Smart-Arsed Apologist of the Establishment” in the Oxford Pictionary, Myers photo would probably be there too.

Given all the aforementioned, I deliberately bought this book in a charity shop in the hope that this would deny Myers any financial benefit from my purchase. As Myers is a voluble opponent of international aid this purchase therefore represented something of a double-whammy.

Watching the Door is a memoir of Myers time as a young journalist in Belfast in the early 1970s. It displays a considerably higher degree of self-awareness than I expected. Myers, it seems, has always known he was an arsehole, and a foolhardy one at that.

A former housemate of mine once almost got himself very badly hurt by a frankly stupid disregard for the dangers posed by a Belfast city centre car bomb. This prompted a house meeting with one item only on the agenda: whether we should kick his shite out for being such a stupid fecker. (We didn’t… even though he was.)

Myers does not appear to have had any housemates to slap him around for his reckless behaviour. Even had he not been so reckless the daily grind of reporting one of the most brutal periods of the Troubles would have resulted in profound post-traumatic stress.

Myers now appears repelled by his youthful self, and the portrait he presents of himself as a youth is repellent. The 180 degree transformation that he has fashioned of himself is also repellent. So in that at least he is consistent.

But he is still an exquisite writer and this is an important subject as the horrors of the 1970s begin to be overlaid by romantic hues and preposterous myths: one article I read recently by an American journalist seriously reported the inspiration that Gerry Adams claimed to take from Martin Luther King, the same Adams whose first appearance in these pages relates to his instruction to an IRA minion on how to deal with a local thug: “Shoot him.” On another occasion, when questioned by a journalist about the disappearance and murder by the IRA of Jean McConville, a single mother, on the trumped up charge of informing, Adams glibly asserted “These things happen in wars.” Indeed they do. They are called war crimes.

Sean O’Callaghan, an Irish Police informer in the IRA, also alleges that Adams contemplated at one stage assassinating John Hume, the most passionate of King’s disciples ever to walk the island of Ireland. John Hume only makes a fleeting appearance in this book. The Peace People are mentioned a couple of times. Seamus Mallon not at all. It may be that they rarely encroached upon Myers consciousness in the midst of his alcoholic stupor from the considerable time spent in late night drinking dens with murderous Loyalist and so-called “Republican” paramilitaries. However their exclusion may be simply to bolster a dubious thesis in this book: that no matter how horrific the paramilitary actions became, and to his credit Myers details many atrocities the former paramilitaries would like to forget, they were never condemned or repudiated by their communities. Hume and Mallon became hoarse in their condemnations of the atrocities of all sides, including the British who Myers, to my mind, soft pedals on, and the SDLP consistently outpolled Sinn Fein by a ratio of 2 to 1 during the period that the Provos waged their illegal war.

The repudiation of sectarianism and violence by many ordinary people in the North was also illustrated in two of the most horrific incidents of the Troubles, which Myers choses to skate over in this book: the Miami Showband and the Kingsmills Massacres. To be fair after the litany of bloodshed which he has already recounted he may have felt exhausted at having to confront these atrocities as well. But there are important details.

The Miami Showband, in one of their last publicity images

The Miami Showband was non-sectarian and religiously mixed. According to Stephen Travers, the band’s bassist and one of the survivors, his best friend in the band, trumpeter Brian McCoy, a Protestant from a Unionist background in County Tyrone, understood the rest of the band’s concern at having been stopped by the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). McCoy whispered to Travers that he could stop worrying when a British officer showed up. That did not protect them unfortunately when the bomb the UDR was trying to plant in the band’s bus went off and killed two of these British armed and directed terrorists. The UDR soldiers, whose dual membership in the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force had not been a barrier to their entry into the British Army, then started butchering this group of defenceless musicians who represented the best of society of the whole island of Ireland.

kingsmillThe Protestant victims of the IRA’s Kingsmill massacre also showed a impressive anti-sectarian heroism as they tried to protect their Catholic colleagues from what they initially thought was a similar UDR/UVF attack, before the horrendous realisation that the war criminals in question on this occasion had come to butcher them.

So in spite of the author’s arseholeism, and the exaggerations, evasions and distortions that pepper this account of war and his, sometimes quite bizarre, sexual adventures, this book is an important one. As many of those who directed war crimes in the course of this illegal war attain high office in both parts of Ireland it reminds us just how horrendous and shameful the Troubles actually were.

For this reason I can only hope many more charity bookshops will benefit from the sale of this book in the years to come.

Less certain than death: corporation tax in the modern world

Originally published in Business Fights Poverty:


In the wake of the recent controversies that have been sparked since the announcement of Google’s US $ 130 million settlement with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, it is worth contemplating, of all things, a few interrelated issues of political and moral philosophy; I find they can often help cut through the bluster.

Milton Friedman once declared that the only moral responsibility of business executives was to maximise profits for shareholders within the law.

Friedman was many things, including a brilliant and accessible writer, although many, myself included, would argue, a deeply simplistic one. Even Ronald Reagan was able to grasp the central tenets of his political economics.

We still live in a world crafted by the economic beliefs of Reagan and, in particular, of Margaret Thatcher, which drew deeply on many of Friedman’s core ideas. One consequence was that his view of the ethical responsibilities of business executives has become the dominant moral code amongst business executives across the world.

A further consequence is that many corporate executives see it as a moral responsibility to minimise the tax that their company pays. It is important to understand this as politicians fulminate ineffectually about the “unethical” nature of legal company tax avoidance: that there is a counter-narrative amongst many business people, which asserts that they are doing the right thing, the moral thing, for their shareholders by minimising, or even avoiding, tax.

scrooge mcducI don’t agree with this perspective but my opinion will make little difference when weighed against the vast piles of loot that wholly legal tax avoidance could deliver. In any event that shouldn’t matter. The potential for tension and conflicts between competing moral philosophies was something which Adam Smith already anticipated in The Wealth of Nations (1776) when he argued that it was the state’s responsibility to regulate businesses: how companies can be made to make fair tax contributions is among the most pressing issues of business regulation today.

Certainly this is now a far more complicated issue than it was in Smith’s day as trade is significantly more international. But it is a challenge that must be confronted through extraterritorial law and, perhaps, new tax collection mechanisms, such as those mooted by Nigel Lawson, and the long overdue Robin Hood tax.  New approaches are vital if there is to be any significant progress towards tax justice, greater economic fairness amongst small, medium and large businesses and a balancing of public finances.

This is an issue where the European Union could demonstrate its worth by offering the prize of continued access to EU markets across the entire member states only to those corporations that agree to abide by more transparent and just rules of taxation.

Paradoxically, to get to a position where politicians would be prepared to move on such a project will probably require quite a few more businesses, particularly those who are arguably disadvantaged by not being able to take such a flexible view of where they should be taxed as their giant competitors, demanding such action. Today, very few politicians are prepared to contemplate any significant changes to the globalising political economy without the imprimatur of at least some parts of the business community.

The problem with inequality

Previously published in Business Fights Poverty:


top-1-percentThis week, Oxfam reported that the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population own more than the rest of us combined. Or, put another way that “… runaway inequality has created a world where 62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population.

In his book, How to Speak Money, John Lanchester argues that such inequality emerges from a general consensus amongst policy makers, borne out by significant progress in the real world,  that permitting such inequality is the best way to reduce poverty due to the economic activity which it stimulates.

Which would be fine if inequality itself were not a considerable problem. A number of business theorists and economists have argued that to obtain sustainability, it is essential to seek growth “at the base of the pyramid”, ensuring that the most abjectly poor have a stake in the global economy. But there may be even more worrying threats emerging from inequality.

In 2014, a study funded by NASA found that the competition for resources and the stratification of society into “elites” and “masses” were key factors in the collapse of civilisations. Essentially, by the time the existential threat to a civilisation began to encroach upon the day-to-day lives of the “elites” to such an extent that they were inclined to do something about it, it was already too late.

Such is the existential threat that today’s mind-boggling level of inequality poses to the world. And the challenge for ending this is not merely a rational political or economic one. The realities of contemporary slavery show us that those privileged by unequal power relationships in society become profoundly attached to them in ways that are often quite irrational. For example, a considerable constraint on obtaining growth at the “base of the pyramid” is that of prejudice; many Indian shop keepers would benefit if abjectly poor Dalits and Adavasi had more disposable income to spend. However, many of the same shop keepers would be aghast at such ritually “unclean” people coming into their premises, no matter how much money they possessed.

Similarly, the prejudice against South Asian migrants to the Gulf States makes it next to impossible for the prejudiced to contemplate how such migrants might contribute to society if they were given decent work instead of being part of the Kafala system which enables their enslavement with impunity.

There are solutions to such prejudices: extension of the rule of law, outlawing discrimination, and educating children for mutual understanding and respect. Such steps will require considerable moral courage by our political leaders. And given that many of the global elite are probably in thrall to such prejudices and utterly unaffected by their consequences, it is rather unlikely that too many proposals to tackle inequality and prejudice will emerge from Davos this week. We can only hope that the voices of citizens from civil society and business alike protesting the threats that inequality poses for us all, will eventually pressure the political and economic elites of the world to finally, perhaps at some future Davos, take concerted action to create a fairer world.