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OPINION: BLM can help us free the 40 million slaves alive today, as well as condemning historical slavery

by Azim Kidwai | Mercy Mission UK
Monday, 22 June 2020 15:46 GMT

Artist Dustin Klein projects a Black Lives Matter image onto the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Julia Rendleman

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We must avoid our grandchildren having to pull down a new generation of statues

The recent Black Lives Matter protests have underlined our generation’s rejection not only of slavery, but its artefacts, symbols and legacy.

But this outrage does not seem to extend to the present day, and the modern slavery that is often as widespread and brutal today as the old slavery was in the past. Modern slavery is not a distant nightmare in pockets of the world’s most impoverished countries: Some of our highest growth economies and most popular products are built on it, and we must leverage our international institutions to eliminate, rather than enable, this crime.

This comparison between slavery in different periods may seem farfetched, but it is important to remember how slavery - past and present - was justified. Traditional slavery was rationalised by the alleged inferior psychological status of the victims. Modern slavery often depends on the perceived economic inferiority of those affected. 

The slave owners of the past told themselves that their slaves were happy in bondage, and that their living conditions under their masters were better than the alternative. Modern slave owners craft fairy tales about the benefits of globalisation and economic growth, without due consideration of the human cost.

This means that we are not just neglecting today’s slaves - we are actively complicit, and even profiting, from their bondage. 

This is not to say that the current outrage at the past is not valid or productive, but it is perhaps hypocritical of us to disavow something from our past while benefiting from its modern incarnation. 

Without detracting from the suffering, past and present, of black communities, we should not shy away from asking ourselves how it feels to see statues of slave owners pulled down if you are one of the 40 million human beings alive today who are faced with their own living, breathing, slave owners. Slave owners who may not be celebrated or recognised in statues, but benefit from a legal system that makes them almost untouchable.

Those who trade in modern slavery - the people traffickers, the controllers of forced labour and the child abusers - will be emboldened by our fanatical focus on past crimes, and acquiescence to current ones.

Yesterday’s heroes - Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes, for example - are today’s villains. 

And some of today’s heroes will, very possibly, be the villains of tomorrow.

It is only by facing this - and establishing universal norms, backed by cross-border laws and enforcement - that we can avoid our grandchildren having to pull down a new generation of statues.

Modern slavery is about much more than the descent-based slavery which is the most traditional form (although this variety does still survive today). Human trafficking, forced and child labour, and forced and early marriage are parts of our global system.

And it is a system from which many of us profit. Millions of Uighurs have been essentially enslaved in forced labour camps by the Chinese Communist Party. It is their work that has contributed to China’s impressive year-on-year economic growth. If you have purchased products from brands including Amazon, Apple, Samsung or Victoria’s Secret, you may have taken the blood money in the form of a more cost-effective supply chain and lower instore prices.

And the issue is not limited to China: Some of the most exciting, energetic places in regions like the Gulf are fuelled by bonded labour not completely dissimilar to the slavery of prior centuries.

It is perhaps the pervasiveness of modern slavery that makes it so hard for us to confront. It is legitimate to question what the effect on the global economy would be if child labour - a norm in many economies - was cut off overnight, driving millions into destitution.

However this is no excuse not to act. The only way to end crimes that have an economic motive is to cut off the demand, and therefore eliminate the supply. 

In the UK, for example, the Modern Slavery Act requires businesses with a turnover of more than £36 million to publish a Modern Slavery Statement clarifying their policies against the practise. However, there is no criminal liability for a Director who fails to comply with the provisions of the Act.

Other laws take a much harsher line on lesser crimes. The Bribery Act holds a company’s Directors personally criminally liable if there is ‘consent and connivance’ on their part when their business (or, more usually, their overseas representatives or agents) are found to be paying bribes.

It is time we treat slavery as seriously as we do bribery. There is always the problem of differences between jurisdictions, meaning that just as there are still tax havens where companies can register to avoid oversight, there may emerge in the future ‘slavery havens’ where companies can be registered to avoid national laws.

The only true solution is for us to treat Modern Slavery as the crime against humanity that it is - and use global institutions like the International Criminal Court to prosecute the kingpins of this global trade.

Pulling down statues of long-dead slave owners is easy. Bringing justice to those who are still alive and profiting from it is much more of a challenge.

Azim Kidwai is CEO of Mercy Mission UK and a Special Advisor to the UN on Islamic Philanthropy.

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