The violence of slavery: how businesses can respond to forced and child labour in their supply chains

Remarks to conflict minerals supply chain compliance and transparency conference, Berlin, 30 Nov 2016

Investigations into conflict minerals, such as diamonds and oil, over the past twenty years have shown how international markets and northern hemisphere business executives have wittingly and unwittingly contributed to the financing of war affecting poor people in the global South.

There has been some notable progress of course. But recent investigations, such as into cobalt mining in central Africa, shows that much still needs to be done.

Conflict, particularly if it affects places which supply scarce commodities, poses a considerable challenge for businesses wishing to operate ethically. Many of the most basic protections that we take for granted are absent and rule of law, if it ever existed, can become a distant memory. Over 2,000 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 war breaks the bonds of human restraint, as Shakespeare recognised, letting slip the dogs.

Consequently conflict creates the conditions in which exploitation and enslavement can be perpetrated to extract minerals for international markets that finance the conflict that in turn perpetuates the conditions in which exploitation and enslavement can continue. It is a vicious circle that I came to loathe during the long and bloody war in Angola, where I worked for five years, trying to ensure basic provision of water and sanitation in the midst of the devastation created by the oil and diamond financed war machines of the antagonists.

Slavery has long been part of war. Caesar enriched himself by the trafficking of millions of prisoners captured in his conquest of Gaul. Islamic State and Boko Haram, drawing on the jurisprudence of Saudi Arabia, seem to have a similar attitude towards those they conquer and subjugate. But the risks of trafficking and enslavement do not end at the edges of the theatres of war. Those who successfully flee the killing fields can find themselves subject to renewed risks if the seeking of refuge leaves them impoverished and without permission to seek decent work legitimately.

I have spoken to humanitarian workers who have found in the refugee camps of the Middle East increased trafficking of children for forced marriage and other forms of sexual exploitation, and of trafficking for forced child labour in agriculture and other forms of production. We may feel shocked when we understand how parents are involved in handing their children over for exploitation, but for many the trafficking of their children into slavery now may seem like a lesser evil than allowing them to starve. Those refugees who have been fortunate enough to make it into Europe may find their troubles are not ended if they also do not have permission to seek work legitimately. They also may find themselves at increased risk of exploitation and enslavement if they seek work in the informal or grey economy.

Put another way, Europe’s political response to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean has been a direct contributor not only to the carnage at sea, but to increased risks of trafficking on land. For businesses this means that supply chains that had been hitherto thought safe from human rights violations are now considerably less so.

Considering all of this I think it is perhaps more useful at this point in time to take a much broader perspective of the risks that conflict poses to supply chains more generally, rather than those associated only with scarce minerals or other commodities. Because one of the commodities that war and conflict produce in such abundance is forced labour, and that can get into all sorts of places. And even where conflicts are less overt or where societies are ostensibly at peace, human trafficking cannot occur without violence.

For example the enslavement of Dalits and Adavasi across south Asia is one manifestation of the violence that emerges from the discrimination that prevails against them across that sub-continent due to the failure to establish effective rule of law that protects the rights of all citizens equally. A consequence of that are endemic levels of slavery in agriculture, quarrying, including mica, brick kilns, and many other manufacturing sectors including garments.

Consider also, for a moment, North Korea. North Korean exports in 2013 were estimated as being in the region of USD 7 billion. In 2015 the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea estimated that the trafficking by the state of its own citizens for forced labour in other countries, including the building sites of Qatar and farms and factories in Poland and Malta, was worth in excess of USD 2 billion. In other words the repressive apparatus of the North Korean dictatorship and the threat to international peace that its nuclear weapons programme poses is sustained insignificant part by international complicity in the trafficking of North Korean citizens.

Some of this may seem daunting, and business leaders may feel powerless in the face of the social and political systems that underpin contemporary forms of slavery and child labour. It one be foolish for anyone to expect any business to be able to solve all such problems, even only in their own supply chains. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights recognise this, stating that it is the responsibility of businesses to respect the human rights of workers, and it is the responsibility of governments to protect those rights. And within this framework I believe that businesses can do more.

The first thing that businesses can and should do is to commit to use whatever power is at their disposal to end the problems that they can end. This will not be everything, but by ensuring transparency in supply chains businesses will not only be able to identify what are the risks of human rights abuses that they face in these supply chains, but understand why these risks exist. In Malaysia, for example, the forced labour of migrants is a particular problem in part because of the tied visa regulations that give employers considerable powers over workers. Ensuring that workers have all the necessary paperwork from day one of their employment to ensure they can leave that employment of their own volition if they so wish would reduce the risks of exploitation. Similarly businesses should refuse to work with labour providers who charge workers fees, often of such exorbitance that they effectively render the workers in bondage.

Second businesses must recognise that the challenges of human rights in supply chains are pre-competitive. No business should be seeking a competitive advantage based on lowering their labour costs to close to zero by effectively enslaving workers. I say no business should do this but of course many do. But likewise no business should be seeking commercial advantage based on simply ensuring that the workers in their supply chain are treated as human beings. That should be the common starting point for all. But in the absence of this there is considerable risk that those who see a commercial advantage in an ethical reputation may be tempted to cover up information about abuses in the supply chains rather than confront and rectify the abuses.

Third businesses should be prepared to recognise when a problem is beyond their power and speak publicly about that. The slavery that exists within the Thai and Irish fishing fleets is in part due to poor regulation and inspection of these sectors. Those are governmental responsibilities. Similarly the child labour that is so endemic in the West African agricultural sector is in part due to the fact that there are too few schools and often these schools are of a poor quality. Again this is a matter that governments should rectify.

Which brings me to my fourth point. Businesses must not be coy about their political voice. Politicians tend to pay more attention to business leaders than to those of non-governmental organisation such as myself. And I get the impression that business leaders are not shy about speaking on a range of what might be called traditional business- political matters, such as tax or trade policy.

But with the globalisation of the international political economy it is important to recognise that human rights and development policy can also have commercial and legal implications for businesses, The US Trade Enforcement and Facilitation Act empowers the US Customs Service to exclude from US markets goods tainted with forced or child labour. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act requires businesses to state what they are doing to eliminate slavery from their supply chains. As I said businesses should commit to doing what is in their power to end slavery in their supply chains, and sometimes the most important power that they should exercise is that of demanding appropriate action from governments.

In the final analysis slavery is a human institution. It can be changed by human action. The great strides that we have seen in against slavery in the course of human history have occurred when businesses have joined with governments, trades unions and civil society to reject this form of violence against vulnerable human beings. You know this yourselves. When we act together, we can overcome.


Keeping the flame: the anti-slavery agenda in a bleak contemporary world

Speech to Annual General Meeting of Anti-Slavery International, 12 Nov 2016 

A few weeks ago I visited Côte d’Ivoire with the confectionary company Mondelez. We have been working with Mondelez for a number of years now, since they bought Cadbury’s and with that Cadbury’s nascent work on trying to tackle the issues of child labour and child slavery in their supply chains.

Both these sets of abuses are rife in agriculture in the global South, often concealed behind the operations of agricultural traders or wholesalers. The reality, however, was revealed at the start of the century with a documentary, Chocolate’s Secret Slaves. This caused a particular shock to both consumers and companies alike and drew attention to the issue, including from the US congress. This in turn forced a rethink by most of the chocolate retailers as to how they were going to manage their supply chains to sustain production and to eliminate the abuses within it.

The response by Mondelez bears Anti-Slavery’s distinct stamp: Anti-Slavery’s work with Mondelez led to their adoption and publication of a new child labour policy that puts transparency and pro-active efforts to identify risks and instances of abuse, at its heart. The effectiveness of this was demonstrated this year by the publication of two independent reports, which we were directly involved in commissioning, on child labour in Mondelez supply chains in Cote d’Ivorie and Ghana. This was the first time to our knowledge that a large company had the courage to publish a report that they commissioned on slavery in supply chains. The recommendations of these reports are now being translated into actions by the coalition of NGOs and businesses involved in the Mondelez “Cocoa Life” programme. A third investigation on Indonesia is underway.

I was able to see the direct impact of this work myself when I visited Ivorian communities where child labour has been reduced, girls’ education boosted, and women’s empowerment helped to establish new community governance structures to ensure that progress is sustained.

I wanted to start with a positive story given the bleakness of the past year. I had some sense we were in for a bad year when David Bowie died on my birthday in January. But just how bad I really could not imagine.

We meet in the aftermath of an election in the US that has brought to power a man who has openly espoused racism and boasted of sexually assaulting women. Closer to home Brexit represents a repudiation of the European ideals of working together bound by common commitments to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Brexit poses a more immediate set of challenges to Anti-Slavery. We were the first and only anti-slavery organisation to highlight, before the referendum, the serious risks that Brexit posed to law enforcement cooperation across Europe in anti-slavery operations, and of reductions of human rights protections to non-UK nationals in Britain that can increase their vulnerability to slavery. Further as Brexit withdraws the UK from the Council of Ministers this restricts radically the UK’s ability to influence Europe wide law and policy against slavery.

But the threats are more profound than that. Brexit certainly represents the UK turning its back on Europe. But it also represents a repudiation by the UK of the ideals of rule of law: certainly of the international variety as Brexit represents a desire to be unbound from the international treaties that have drawn Europe together so successfully for so long. But, with the recent attacks on High Court judges for having the temerity of doing their jobs by ruling that parliament is paramount in UK law, we see a repudiation by powerful and vocal sections of the UK population of the ideal of rule of law itself.

Advancing rule of law, particularly obtaining adequate human rights protections in national and international law, is an essential front in the struggle against slavery. The absence of such protections leads to the sort of slavery abuses we see from the brick kilns of northern India to the international trafficking of vulnerable workers to the building sites of Qatar and the servants’ quarters of London.

An immediate threat to the work of Anti-Slavery International is the UK government’s indication that they wish to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights.

Amongst other human rights issues, over the past decade the European Court of Human Rights have repeatedly held accountable European Governments on their failure to protect vulnerable workers from slavery.

This year the threat of referral to the Court forced the British Government to halt the deportation of a client of Anti-Slavery who had come to us with a credible account and substantial documentary evidence of forced labour in the UK, which the British police had refused to investigate when he approached them in two different UK cities.

This year we have also made a submission to the Court on a case from Greece where a group of Bangladeshi agricultural workers were enslaved with the collusion of the Greek police, a matter that the Greek Government has failed to resolve in spite of the entreaties of the Greek Ombudsman.

Over the past decade, several key judgments highlighted the obligations of the state in relation to slavery – in particular that it is the authorities duty to act on indications of trafficking. Without the Greek government being bound by the European Court of Human Rights there would be no legal recourse for their abject failure to protect the most basic rights of these enslaved migrant workers. Let us hope that Greece is not inspired by the UK’s contempt for the Court to also seek to remove itself from the jurisdiction of the Court.

In the bleakness of the current historical moment I recall how Abraham Lincoln would comfort himself in the midst of another crisis by reflecting on the sentence, “And this too shall pass away.”

There will be brighter days ahead. But we will not be a passive actor awaiting those days. We represent the oldest and deepest tradition of European human rights – remember the Committee for the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was formed by a bunch of awkward Quakers in London in 1787, two years before the French Revolution.

So we will be working for better days. Anti-Slavery will place itself at the forefront of the struggle to protect the Human Rights Act. We will continue to strive with our friends and colleagues in the anti-slavery movements of the global South, for stronger national and international action against slavery and for practical measures to empower those vulnerable to slavery, forced and child labour, in both East and West Africa, in South Asia, in Europe and in the Americas.

That is another reason why I began these remarks with a brief discussion of our work with Mondelez. It represents the real progress for tens of thousands of people that can arise from our sustained work, without artificially imposed timetables, with people of good will from non-traditional partners as well as with the more traditional variety that we work with. That is also part of the Anti-Slavery tradition, stretching back to Thomas Clarkson’s original organising and campaigning against slavery with all sections of society from business leaders to trade union organisers.

The UK’s modern slavery act, which Anti-Slavery played a decisive role in making more fit for purpose than the government’s underwhelming original draft of the Bill, contains a Transparency in Supply Chains clause. This has led to an increased attention by business to the risks of slavery in their supply chains and increased requests from businesses for Anti-Slavery to work with them to help mitigate the risks and hence open greater opportunities for decent work to those currently enslaved.

As we grasp these opportunities we fulfil, I believe, the imperative identified by Roger Casement in 1894, that “… we all on earth have a commission and a right to defend the weak against the strong, and to protest against brutality in any shape or form”. And, in fulfilling that commission, we will keep the flame of human rights alive, and continue to change the world for the better.

The Modi Effect, by Lance Price

Summary: A Spinner gets spun.


Lance Price presents his book to Prime Minister Modi

The first and most important thing that Lance Price wants you to know from his book The Modi Effect, is that he, Lance Price, is a BIG DEAL. He has worked for Tony Blair as his Director of Communications. He has met Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama. He even once had a 10 minute conversation with Nelson Mandela.

So it is only natural that Narendra Modi should chose him, Lance Price, to write this book on Modi’s successful 2014 election campaign. Price suggests this is an act of particular self confidence on Modi’s part, because someone who is as BIG a DEAL as Lance Price is not to be trifled with. “You can’t spin a spinner“, Price informs us early on, because he is a BIG DEAL, and used to work for Tony Blair.

To which I thought, “Hmmm… lets see.”

The thing is though Price is not really interested in India, per se. Price is interested in elections. So he is only interested in India insofar as it relates to his story of the conduct of this election. And he is interested in Modi because he won an overwhelming electoral victory in the world’s largest democracy.

Hence we get extensive passages on Modi’s personal fashion sense, branding, merchandising, manifesto writing, use of social media and technology, including the tour through rural areas of his hologram so he could make speeches to communities with no electricity or television. The deeper question, of what Modi really believes and represents is addressed in only a fragmentary fashion

Price discusses some of the key controversies relating to Modi, in particular his relationship with the RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP that many progressive Indians accuse of neo-fascism, Hindutva – the ideology of Hindu nationalism, and the 2002 Gujarat riots in which a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed on his watch as Chief Minister of the state. But Price insists on casting these issues in the most benign light possible. The RSS, he suggests, may be no more sinister than the UK’s trade union movement. Hindutva as espoused by Modi, shouldn’t really be seen as that antagonistic towards India’s non-Hindus.

As for the Gujarat riots of 2002, the Indian Supreme Court itself found that Modi couldn’t be held culpable. This may be true. Nehru should not be held directly culpable for the atrocities during the partition of India. But then Nehru spoke loudly against the bloodshed, personally faced down Hindu mobs to protect the lives of Indian Muslims, and ultimately managed to bring Nepalese and southern Indian troops into place to stop the killing. The best that Modi, that master of language, could bring himself to say regarding the bloodshed was if “someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.”

Price notes that following the 2002 riots Gujarat has been peaceful and economically prosperous under Modi’s rule. Perhaps that shows his enlightenment? Perhaps it shows an effectively terrorised minority? Rather than deign to talk to Gujarati Muslims, Price is content that the carnage of the Gujarat riots “pains” Modi “greatly“.

But the fact that Modi has never been forceful in his denunciation of the 2002 or other alleged Hindu atrocities indicates, at best, a profound cynicism on Modi’s part, that he is not prepared to alienate even his most fratricidal potential supporters. The conduct of the 2014 election in Uttar Pradesh, in which Modi’s BJP stirred up caste and sectarian prejudices to win the election is further evidence that his BJP is less benign than Modi would like to portray. In two of the more interesting chapters towards the end of the book Price finally seems to recognise Modi’s silence on these issues cannot be excused as a mere political calculation, but rather they indicate a profound moral failure, that as elected leader of India Modi is making no effort to confront some of the darkest and most atavistic aspects of Indian society that have disfigured the world’s largest democracy since independence.

Overall The Modi Effect has some interesting information, but it would have benefited from a greater interest by Price in Indian politics instead of just Indian elections. And it would have benefited even more if Price had perhaps been a little more interested in the lives and experiences of the millions of Indians who are not so nearly as BIG a DEAL as he is.

The Human Rights Legacy of Roger Casement

From a talk given as part of the New Perspectives on 1916 series, organised by the Sheehy Skeffington Language School, Castlewellan, Co. Down

Casement’s revolutionary nationalism often overshadows his considerably greater achievements as a human rights and anti-slavery activist. So I would like to take the opportunity to consider in greater detail this contribution before reflecting upon Casement’s continuing legacy as one to the Twentieth Centuries towering human rights figures.

The Congo Investigaton

Casement had considerable experience of various parts of Africa, from his work in commercial enterprises, before he joined the British Consular service. Adam Hochschild, in his extraordinary book King Leopold’s Ghost, notes how Casement’s reports frequently drew attention to the atrocities committed by colonial authorities against local Africans. But this was mere prologue to Casement’s first major contribution to the field of human rights: his official 1903 investigation into the abuses in the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium.

Leopold had been granted personal possession of the Congo at the 1885 Berlin conference, in which the European powers carved up Africa, and he proceeded to plunder it with ruthless abandon, all the while telling the world that he was undertaking a civilising mission to develop the country and protect its peoples.

Hochschild, notes how in 1907 an exhibition of Congalese art toured Europe, no doubt to show how Leopold’s patronage of the country was an enlightened one. To this day the Congalese art of Angola and Congo is very distinctive. I remember the first time I encountered it in the markets of Angola where I worked during the civil war, and the shock of familiarity that it brought. Because it was at this exhibition that Picasso and others first encountered Congalse art and were inspired to experiment with cubism, something I had previously presumed was a distinctly European art form, but which I discovered was in fact a very African one.

But the wealth that Leopold was interested in was not art but ivory and, most disastrously for the human beings who lived in Congo, rubber.

The end of the 19th Century saw a surge in demand for rubber and the catalyst for this demand was the 1890 invention, by John Dunlop in Belfast, of the pneumatic tire, the first of which Dunlop fitted to his son’s tricycle. This new technology contributed to an increased interest in cycling and with the advent of the automobile yet more demand for rubber.

This was a demand that Leopold was more than happy to try to satisfy. And, in order to satisfy it he oversaw a dramatic escalation of violence and slavery in Congo.

One common punishment for the failure to satisfy the quotas for rubber demanded by Leopold’s officials was the hacking off of hands. But this was by no means the worst of the depredations brought by Leopold’s reign in the Congo.

Casement recorded in 1887, before he became a British Consul, a conversation he had with a member of Leopold’s private army, the Force Publique, who told him how he paid his soldiers the equivalent of two and a half pence “per human head that they brought him in the course of any military operation he conducted. He said it was to stimulate their prowess in the face of the enemy.”

In 1899 another state officer told an American missionary, Ellsworth Faris, about the killing squads he had under his command, stating that each time his corporal “goes out to get rubber, cartridges are given to him. He must bring back all not used and for every one used he must bring back a right hand.” This officer told the missionary that in 6 months in one part of the Congo his men had used 6,000 cartridges. But, Faris noted, it must mean that more than 6,000 people had been killed or mutilated as he had been told repeatedly that the soldiers killed children with the butts of their guns.

img_0978One of the first people to realise what was happening in the Congo was a young British shipping clerk called Edmund Morel. Morel, who was based in Antwerp, was involved in shipping cargo to Congo and also overseeing the cargos that returned loaded with what Leopold was telling the world was the results of a legitimate trade with the place. But while the cargos coming back were enormously rich, including rubber and ivory, the products going out were predominantly military stores, firearms, ammunition and whips.

Morel thought about this for some time and realised that the only explanation for such a lopsided trade could be that what was happening in the Congo was not fair trade but plunder. Indeed this was plunder that was being facilitated by enslavement and mass murder on almost industrial scales.

Casement’s 1903 report was one of the most high profile and damning indictments of Leopold’s reign in the Congo. It was commissioned following considerable pressure and agitation by Morel and his allies in parliament. Following the passage of a resolution in May that year in the House of Commons, “that the Congo natives [as the human residents were typically called in those days] should be governed with humanity”, the British government commissioned Casement, then its consul at Boma in the Congo Free State, to investigate the human rights situation.

Casement was already keenly aware from his years in Africa just what the nature of Leopold’s rule was. But this commission gave him the opportunity to do something about it.

In order to conduct his research Casement hired a steam boat from some missionaries and travelled for three and a half months through the upper Congo Basin. As he prepared to set out he knew that the trip was going to be a difficult one and noted an African proverb: “A man does not go through thorns unless a snake is after him, …or he is after a snake. I’m after a snake. And please God I’ll scotch it.”

In the course of these investigations he interviewed workers, overseers and mercenaries throughout the region, including 17 days at Lake Tumba where the state ran directly its rubber slavery operations. He described his expedition as “breaking into the thieves’ kitchen.”

The eyewitness report that Casement delivered in 1904 detailed the devastation that Leopold’s rule brought to individuals and communities. Large areas of the country had been depopulated. The use for forced labour was systemic and torture, mutilation and murder routine and practiced with impunity by state officials.

It was on his return to Britain and Ireland to present the report that Casement and Morel finally met for the first time. And, during a subsequent meeting in the Slieve Donard hotel in Newcastle they agreed to establish the Congo Reform Association to campaign for an end to Leopold’s atrocities. Morel was the public face and voice of this movement because Casement was still a civil servant. But Casement remained an key adviser and strategist in the agitation the followed the publication of the report.

The subsequent agitation by Morel and others, led to demands for action to relieve the situation of the Congolese. The international public and diplomatic pressure finally led to critics of Leopold’s Congolese policy in the Belgian Parliament to finally force Léopold to set up an independent commission of inquiry. In 1905, this confirmed the essentials of Casement’s report, and led in 1908 to the Belgian parliament taking over the administration of the Congo Free State.

It is estimated that Leopold’s rule in the Congo had brought about a halving of the population to around 10 million by 1924. Certainly that was not the end of the colonial tribulations of the Congo: Belgian rule never obtained a reputation for enlightenment. And to this day the wealth of the Congo is fought over by ruthless and blood-thirsty regional and international actors. But the efforts to which Morel and Casement contributed so decisively brought an end to a genocide, and that is an achievement of historical proportions.

The Peruvian Amazon Company

Casement’s second major human rights intervention also related to slavery atrocities associated with rubber, but this time in Peru in South America rather than in Congo.

The Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC) was registered in Britain in 1908 and had a British board of directors and numerous stockholders. However by as early as September 1909, a journalist, Sidney Paternoster, had published accounts of abuses against company workers. In addition, the British consul at Iquitos had said that Barbadians, considered British subjects as part of the empire, had been ill-treated while working for company. This gave the British government a reason to intervene.

So again Casement was commissioned to investigate. He made his first trip to the Putumayo District in the Amazon basin, where the rubber was harvested, in 1910. Like the upper Congo basin where he had helped uncover the abuses perpetrated by Leopold this area was very isolated. Casement found that for years, the indigenous people of this area had been forced into unpaid labor by the personnel of the Peruvian Amazon Company, who exerted absolute power over them and subjected them to near starvation, severe physical abuse, including branding and whipping, rape of women and girls by the managers and overseers, and casual murder.

Casement found conditions as inhumane as those in the Congo. As in the Congo he interviewed both the abused and the abusers in an effort to provide a thorough understanding of what was going on.

Casement’s report was described by Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times journalist, as a brilliant piece of journalism“, as he wove together first-person accounts by both “victims and perpetrators of atrocities. Casement’s Congo report had been anonymised by the Foreign Office, but in this report, as O’Toole notes, “…distant colonial subjects [were] given… personal voices in an official document.

The publication of the report provoked many expressions of shock and horror by the wealthy board members of the Peru Amazon Company and the Peruvian government. As we still see today when exposes of slavery in international supply chains are made, diverse commitments were made to make changes. So in 1911, the British government asked Casement to return to Peru to see if promised changes in treatment had occurred. In a report to the British foreign secretary, dated 17 March 1911, Casement detailed the rubber company’s continued abuses.

Little substantive had changed and, summing up to a parliamentary select committee the conditions of the indigenous people forced to gather rubber he said “These people have absolutely no human rights much less civil rights. They are hunted and chased like wild animals.”

After his return to Britain, Casement continued to work with others, including the Anti-Slavery Society, as Anti-Slavery International was then known, to bring change to the region.

Some of those Casement had exposed as killers in his 1910 report were charged by Peru. But most fled the region and were never captured.

Ultimately the growth of farmed rubber began to reduce the demand for the wild rubber that had contributed to these depredations. But the positions of indigenous peoples across South America are still poor and many are still exploited and enslaved to this day.

The human rights legacy of Casement

Now both these investigations were considerable achievements in their own rights and the impact of the Congo investigation in particular, which contributed significantly to the ending of a genocide, should be recognised as a major historical achievement. But it is not, predominantly, for these things that Casement is remembered in Ireland, though he fares better than Morel who is barely remembered at all in Britain.

Fintan O’Toole suggests that Casement has a good claim to be the father of twentieth-century human rights investigations. He described Casement as, “a one-man precursor of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.” But I think this is perhaps an over-egged assertion.

Casement was very much a part of an already well established tradition of human rights investigation that had been pioneered by Anti-Slavery International, beginning with the investigations undertaken by Thomas Clarkson into the trans-Atlantic Slave trade at the end of the eighteenth century. This tradition was exemplified also by Edmund Morel in Casement’s own day. It is a tradition that continues to this day with journalists like Pete Pattisson, and the staff and partner organisations of Anti-Slavery itself who continue to expose these sorts of abuses across the globe.

So if one is seeking a more distinctive legacy from Roger Casement I would suggest that his human rights legacy lies in two other areas.

First towards the end of his life Casement would draw direct analogies between the plight of the Irish people and the indigenous peoples of Peru or the Congo. At the historical remove of 21st Century Ireland, some may find such analogies strained, though I suspect they may have been found less strained at the turn of the 20th Century. But however one may view those analogies I think it is important to recognise that they express an understanding of the common humanity that we all share. And that is an important and politically potent legacy, because it brought with it a repudiation of racist strains of Irish nationalism that had been espoused by national disgraces such as John Mitchell, whose virulently racist and pro-slavery views Irish leaders as distinguished as Arthur Griffith were still defending in Casement’s own day.

And this legacy remains relevant today because it brings with it a repudiation of the ghoulish forces of extremity, from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage, and their pathetic fellow travellers, who seek to stoke fear and division amongst ordinary human beings in the dangerous and fragile times in which we live.

This universalist view of humanity was apparent in Casement’s speech from the dock when he argued that “whe[n] men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruit of their own labours … then surely it is a braver, a saner, and a truer thing to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as this than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.”

This commitment to an ideal of common humanity is one of the reasons why that speech was so resonant with Nehru and so many of the anti-imperialists of the early twentieth century. And it is that commitment to an ideal of common humanity that underpins and distinguishes true human rights struggles from sectarian or sectional agitations.

The other significant strand of Casement’s human rights legacy is, I think, tied up with the final portion of his life.

Casement’s conversion to revolutionary nationalism, to anti-imperialism, was not divorced from his human rights work, but rather, I think, an evolution of it. Now you can agree or disagree with some of the choices that he made, but what I think is undeniable was that what Casement properly discerned was that the systems of slavery and genocide which he did so much to expose were not aberrations from the colonial order but consequences of it.

Hochschild notes how Casement used to have arguments with Morel where he would take Morel to task for his assertion that the UK was less malevolent that other colonial powers. Now I think there may be a case that can be made for that if you are a historian and have nothing better to do.

But Casement’s point was more fundamental. It was that the entire system of colonialism was by its nature exploitative, and consequently violence and atrocity where intrinsic to it. Remember that the Famine, which halved the Irish population as a direct consequence of a combination of incompetent, racist and ideological British policy, was within living memory at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. And the British Empire visited similar carnage again on Bengal in 1943, something that the Conservative British historian Max Hastings, who is a sincere admirer of Winston Churchill, described as Churchill’s “unfinest hour” such was the level of Churchill’s culpability that he discerned for the carnage that engulfed that part of India during his premiership.

So the British Empire was not immune from comparable excesses to Leopold, or the Conquistadors, or the American Expansion into the West of North America, or the French in South East Asia, or the Zulu or Ethiopians as they sought to expand their empires in Africa. And this should not be surprising. Exploitation was fundamental to colonialism, and consequently violence and atrocity are intrinsic to that system.

Now the age of Empires has faded away, but I would argue that one of the key human rights legacies of Roger Casement is the insight that human rights abuses are a product of unjust political economic systems.

Just to define a term for a moment – by political economy I mean the laws, policies, customs and practices that we as a human society use to govern employment, production, trade and the ways we do business.

Colonialism was a particular system of political economy, but the sweeping away of colonialism has not seen its wholesale replacement with more just systems. Instead we see new systems of power established within which exploitation and slavery continue to thrive.

Casement may have, famously, been ‘hanged upon a comma’ given the ambiguities of the Treason Act under which he was prosecuted. But, let’s not quibble too much: he was a revolutionary and a committed anti-imperialist, captured in time of war under arms against the British Empire. He understood, as he said in his speech from the dock, that while others of his contemporaries had take paths that they hoped would lead to the Woolsack, the Lord Chancellorship, he had taken a path that he knew must lead to the dock. The British Empire never had a reputation for compassion and understanding to those who sought to rebel against the vested interests who profited so richly from colonialism.

But, perhaps, given this, it is apt to reflect for a moment on the aphorism: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason”.

Because the same is true for slavery. When it prospers none dare call it slavery. You may sometimes hear it said that slavery is today everywhere illegal. That is no more true today than it was in Casement’s own day. Slavery is sometimes perpetrated by criminal gangs breaking robust laws in spite of considerable efforts of law enforcement.

However it is vastly more common across the world for slavery to be, de facto, a legal enterprise.

For example it is not uncommon for states to establish systems of tied visas that facilitate unscrupulous employers to exploit up to the level of enslavement migrant workers. This is a particular feature of the political economies of Malaysia and the Gulf states. These systems deny migrant workers the rights to quit their jobs or even to return home without the explicit authority of the employers. The level of exploitation and contempt for human lives that emerges from such systems is going to mean that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is likely to be the bloodiest sporting event since Julius Caesar’s funeral games.

Tied visas are also a feature of the system by which overseas domestic workers in the UK are trafficked for domestic servitude. Irrespective of what the British Government says about wishing to be a world leader in the struggle against slavery, the sordid truth remains that the UK government has de-facto legalised trafficking for forced domestic servitude within its own borders. Tied visas are also a feature of the exploitation of migrant fishermen working in Irish waters.

If you still doubt the effective legality of slavery in parts of the world consider the case of North Korea. The North Korean government finances is nuclear programme as well as its repressive security apparatus and the luxurious lifestyle of Kim through the trafficking of its own citizens to forced labour in China, Russia, Poland and Malta, a trade that the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea estimates to be worth over USD 2 billion annually.

Or again, in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia government-organised forced labour is the principle means by which these countries harvest one third of the world’s cotton.

In other parts of the world slavery is facilitated by the simple expedient of ignoring the law. India has much decent law against slavery. But the lack of capacity of the courts, the corruption of the police, the ingrained practices of caste- based apartheid across much of South Asia, and the refusal of the various Indian state and union legislatures to do anything about these systemic failures means that for tens of millions of the most vulnerable people, particularly those from the Dalit and Adavasi communities, these laws means nothing, provides no protection from abuses and fewer guarantees of decent work for themselves or their families.

A consequence of the routine use of slavery in Central and South Asia is that anyone who is reading this who is wearing cotton is probably wearing at least one garment that has been manufactured, at least in part, by people in slavery.

So, while the urgency of the twentieth century anti-imperial struggles may have diminished Casement’s human rights work resonates still, not simply because of the scale of the remaining challenges, but because of the ideals that he espoused, of fraternity in the struggle and clear sightedness about the causality, are still vital.

But before anyone despairs, remember that slavery, human exploitation and the abuse of human rights are political issues and hence they demand political solutions. And the shapes of those political solutions are already apparent.  

In 1894 Casement wrote an unsuccessful protest against the execution by Germany in Cameroon of 27 soldiers and their wives. The soldiers had mutinied in protest against their wives being whipped. In it he said, “… we all on earth have a commission and a right to defend the weak against the strong, and to protest against brutality in any shape or form”.

That remains I think a potent challenge to all of us to this very day. And if we have the courage to grasp it, we may find we are able to change the world, just a little bit, for the better.

Roger Casement: human rights and the morality of rebellion

Also published in Left Foot Forward
CasementOn 3rd August 1916 Roger Casement was executed for high treason in Pentonville Prison, London. He was the last knight of the realm to befall such a fate in the United Kingdom.

Casement had been a leader of the 1916 rebellion in Ireland. While his earlier capture meant that he had been absent from the fighting in Dublin during Easter Week, his collusion with the Germans, in an attempt to procure arms for the uprising, had been enough to seal his fate.

Casement’s revolutionary nationalism often overshadows his, arguably greater, contribution as a human rights and anti-slavery activist.

As British Consul in Congo, Casement had been a pivotal figure in exposing King Leopold’s genocidal exploitation of the peoples of the Congo in pursuit of rubber and ivory. Under Leopold, William Sheppard, a black American missionary, documented how a chief had shown him 81 severed hands which he was taking to a state official to prove that they had punished villagers who had not complied with demands that they collect rubber.

That was by no means the worst of the depredations brought by Leopold’s reign in the Congo. But as a result of work by Casement, Sheppard and others, such as the extraordinary British journalist, Edmund Morel, finally sufficient international pressure was brought to bear on Leopold and Belgium to end the atrocities.

Later, at the behest of the Anti-Slavery Society, as Anti-Slavery International was then known, Casement undertook investigations in the Putamayo region of the Amazon, to expose similar sorts of slavery in the rubber plantations of the Peruvian Amazon Company, which had been registered in Britain in 1908 and had a British board of directors and numerous stockholders. Summing up to a parliamentary select committee the conditions of the Indian’s forced to gather rubber he said “These people have absolutely no human rights much less civil rights. They are hunted and chased like wild animals.”

Casement’s years investigating human rights abuses in Africa and South America led him to a become a committed anti-imperialist. Consequently, following his retirement from the Foreign Service, he became heavily involved in the growing efforts towards independence of his native Ireland. As these efforts were increasingly resisted with threat of violence by anti-democratic elements in both Ireland and the British Establishment Casement became involved in the Irish Volunteers, a militia founded to guarantee Irish Home Rule.

With the coming of the First World War much of the Volunteer movement was induced to join the British Army with the promise of Home Rule after the war. Casement was deeply sceptical of such promises and, along with the clandestine movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, began to contemplate revolution as the only way to obtain Irish independence. As he said himself, while others of his contemporaries and political opponents took paths “which they felt would lead to the Woolsack… I went a road that I knew must lead to the dock.


The leaking of Casement’s personal diaries by the British state, exposing his homosexuality, undermined a campaign for his death sentence to be commuted.

Following his conviction Casement made a celebrated speech from the dock in which he reflected, “whe[n] men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruit of their own labours … then surely it is a braver, a saner, and a truer thing to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as this than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.”

His speech was a considerable influence on the young Jawaharlal Nehru, the future Prime Minister of India, and many other anti-imperialists of the early twentieth century.

While the urgency of the anti-imperial struggle may have diminished Casement’s human rights work resonates still. In spite of the efforts of Casement and many like him millions of people are still enslaved across the world, just as they were in Casement’s day. Many of them are subject still to the same sorts of brutal violence Casement exposed in Africa and South America. Even in Nehru’s India, the world’s largest democracy, the severing of the hands of Dalits is still a sanction used to compel forced labour.

So, at the centenary of Casement’s death, the lesson of his life remains a vital one: when the status quo is injustice, the right thing to be is a rebel.

Cries unheard: the barriers to ending child labour

Speech to semi-plenary session of Global Conference on Child Labour, The Hague, May 2010 

I will try to be brief as I am very aware that three quarters of the way through a conference on child labour with this sort of audience there is little that I can say that you do not already know.

I was very struck by the comment from the speaker Ms Nyunguna in the last session who stated quite bluntly the harsh truth that “We do not own this problem” of child labour. This I think is core to the world’s failure to eliminate child labour. However I would put Ms Nyunguna’s important insight slightly differently. It is that we would sooner own just about every other problem rather than that of child labour.

This is because as individuals and organisations we have to relate to a multiplicity of stakeholders and we will tend to privilege those most immediate to us, those who are the loudest and those who have the most power to advance or impede our own most favoured interests. Tragically for the child labourers of the world they rarely are in a position to make their voices heard to the powerful, hence their needs are most easily ignored amongst the clamour of other interests. And, when decision-makers privilege the priorities of powerful stakeholders over those of children in labour they will find no lack of stories to tell themselves that what they are doing is not only necessary but morally good.

The most common excuses for failing to act on such fundamental issues of human rights are economic. Paul Whitehouse, Chair of the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority in the UK notes how the introduction of ships’ loading lines was opposed in the 19th Century by the British Government department responsible for trade because while it recognised that it would unquestionably save the lives of sailors it would also impinge upon the profits of ship owners. I do not deny for a moment that economic concerns are vital issues in the modern world. But if we allow them to become fundamental they will define us, in whole or in part, as a singularly unattractive sort of people, the sort who are prepared to tolerate the sufferings of others in the name of our selfish interests.

Some of the finest moments in human history have occurred when decision makers have unshackled their minds from the primacy of economic concerns. Modern historians recognise, for example, that Britain’s abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade cost the nation millions of pounds, a loss the nation was prepared to bear such was the society’s revulsion at the human cost of the country’s economic success. In the modern world child labourers are generally disorganised and distant from the powerful, obscured from view by the complexity of the global market and hence easily forgotten. Even domestic labourers in our own midst in Europe and America are sufficiently out of sight to have their rights generally ignored.

The last British Government, progressive on many issues, declared that it saw no need for a new international convention on domestic labour, despite cases such as Patience versus the UK demonstrating how easily, even for an adult, domestic labour can degenerate into slavery. The vulnerability of children is even more pronounced. And yet such risks are discounted in the face of the principle of minimising regulation.

In the coming months many other stakeholders may find reasons that they find morally convincing to oppose an international convention on domestic labour, or other measures to combat other forms of child labour, particularly in agriculture. But if we as a human society, as a community of nations and employers and civil society, allow such arguments to triumph in relation to child domestic labour and all the other forms of child labour it will be a terrible indictment of all of us.

To Realise Modest Dreams: Law, policy and decent work

Remarks to Committee on Decent Work in Global Supply Chains, International Labour Conference, Geneva, 30 May 2016 

Many thanks for the opportunity of speaking here today.

This is a timely discussion. It occurs, of course, in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goal 8 to, “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. This includes a clear target for an end to slavery and child labour.

The deliberations of this Committee are therefore the first substantive international consideration of what practical measures may be put in place to help achieve the ideals of that particular goal.

I believe that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, give us the clearest guidance on how these deliberations should proceed. They state that businesses have the responsibility to respect workers’ human rights while governments have the responsibility to protect those rights. Of course it is desperately difficult for businesses to uphold their responsibilities when states are failing so abjectly in theirs.

That is a reality of the contemporary global political economy. Certain countries have sought to establish competitive advantage by scrapping the most basic of human rights protections for those who quite legitimately seek work in those countries.

This cannot go on. And this Committee now has an opportunity to lead on how it should end.

Decent work in international supply chains requires a number of quite basic protections in law and policy. It requires freedom of association. It requires an end to discrimination. It requires an end to tied visas and recruitment fees. It requires honest and sufficient systems of labour inspections to ensure that unscrupulous employers are not exploiting or enslaving vulnerable workers. It requires honest and sufficient systems of health and safety inspections so that poor people do not have to live with the threat that their working days may end by being burned to death, or crushed by collapsing concrete, as they toil to satisfy Northern hemisphere demands for cheap goods.

As a board member of the Ethical Trading Initiative in the UK I know that many business leaders, like all people of conscience, crave governments to put in place measures such as these to level the playing field by compelling unscrupulous employers to act with a modicum of decency.

So I respectfully but strongly suggest that this Committee must act to advance Sustainable Development Goal 8 by entering into a standard setting process on decent work in global supply chains to establish an international framework within which systemic risks and abuses can be addressed.

If it fails to do so then we will have failed at the first on the promise of a better world that these Development Goals make. And vulnerable workers will, for years to come, pay for that failure with the destruction of their hopes and loss of their lives.