Apologies are quite the thing these days. Popes and politicians alike find themselves saying sorry, often for historical wrongs which everyone regretted long ago but which still serve as cultural and political bargaining chips in a world acutely sensitive to human rights. Tony Blair joined the ranks of apologisers a couple of weeks ago with a carefully worded “sorry” for his country’s part in the slave trade, in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of its abolition in Britain next March.
“It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time,” he said. “Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was, how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition, but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.”
Whether this amounts to a real apology has been the subject of some controversy. So has the idea that the slave trade is a thing of the past. In fact, only a couple of weeks before Mr Blair consigned that evil to history, a Vatican official was saying just the opposite — that slavery is very much alive and, indeed, worse than ever. He was referring to the trafficking of hundreds of thousands of people a year, including women forced to become prostitutes and children forced into labour and guerrilla warfare.
“This trafficking in human beings has intensified — persons put into slavery because they depend on certain criminals who take possession of these human beings,” said Cardinal Renato Martino, a former Vatican envoy to the United Nations and current head of the Holy See’s office concerned with migrants and itinerant people.
‘It’s worse today’
“It’s worse than the slavery of those taken from Africa and brought to other countries,” he added. That is a sobering claim when you think about the poor wretches packed into slave ships hundreds of years ago and then labouring under the lash in plantations in the new world. And yet today’s enslaved prostitutes, for example, not only work under the threat of disfigurement or death; they are forced to co-operate in a unique way in their own degradation. The slave in the field could at least cling to an inner freedom, but the sex slave is somehow violated in the core of her being.
Today’s slavery is also worse because it flourishes in a world that officially worships freedom and, as Cardinal Martino says, “proclaims human rights right and left”. Two hundred years ago the West was only waking up to the modern concept of the “rights of man”; today enough ink has been spilled on the subject to float a slave ship. “[L]et’s see,” says the cardinal, “what it does about the rights of so many human beings which are not respected, but trampled.”
He does not exaggerate. An article[i] by Ethan B Kaptsein on this subject in the current issue of Foreign Affairs — the bible of the foreign relations community — gives some numbers and they really are shocking. The United States government estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people each year are deceived and coerced across borders into some form of labour bondage. That’s at least twice as many people as Britain, by then the chief trader, was transporting from Africa to the Americas at the beginning of the 19th century.
But it does not does not include the many millions of people who are held as forced labourers within their home countries today. When those individuals are taken into account, the total number of people estimated to be living in some form of forced servitude — according to the International Labour Organisation — grows to 12 million. For comparison, estimates of the number of victims of the African slave trade vary from around 10 million to 28 million, over the whole period from 1450 to the early 1800s.
While the large numbers of children suffering cruel servitude in India, Africa and elsewhere are a distressing part of this problem, it is the issue of forced prostitution that directly concerns advanced industrial countries such as Britain. We have written before in MercatorNet about the young women who are lured from impoverished post-Communist countries with promises of jobs as waitresses, dancers or au pairs — or simply bullied into leaving home — by thugs who stand to make nearly $US10,000 for every victim they on-sell to the gangs controlling prostitution rings in the western capitals. That’s based on an average price for a slave of $12,500 — far less, relatively speaking, than what African slaves once fetched in the antebellum United States, thanks in part to cheap modern transportation, as Kapstein notes.
How do they get away with it? We are talking here about what Tony Blair rightly calls a crime against humanity. There are international conventions and protocols to suppress and punish the trade. But, as we know, some countries have scant regard for such instruments, and when those countries represent vital energy sources (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for example) or major economic powers (China, India and Russia) no one is keen to apply pressure. Bribery and corruption within countries also plays its part.
Even in the more rights-oriented countries, says Kapstein, the risks of arrest for sex trafficking and coercion are low and the penalties are relatively light. “In the United States, for example, drug traffickers generally face much stiffer sentences than those who traffick in humans.” And yet the US, where there is less trafficking anyway, has been far more active in recent years in cracking down on the slave trade than Europe.
‘Am I not a woman and a sister?’
The trouble with Europe is that it is deeply compromised on the issue of prostitution. Having shelved moral considerations and allowed a sex market to grow during last century, most states have legalised it to some degree and now aim only to mitigate its worst effects for the women involved and for society. The Netherlands and Germany have dignified prostitution with the status of regular “work” under certain conditions and made it almost a protected industry.
Britain itself came close a year ago to a similar arrangement, but decided in the end on halfway measures that decriminalise small brothels (two or three women, including a “maid” or receptionist) in order to get the sex market off the street — where it annoys and offends ordinary people. Policing and justice will get tough with male “kerb crawlers” but will be soft on the women, who will be helped to leave the trade.
British pragmatism at its best? Perhaps. Will it eliminate coercion in the sex trade? Probably not. And anyway, it wasn’t pragmatism that made Britain the first country to definitively abolish the slave trade. It wasn’t just the “safety” or even the comfort of the slaves that motivated William Wilberforce to persevere year after year to get his slave trade bill passed. It was his Christian conscience — the conscience that caused him and others to see the African in chains as “a man and a brother”, a being of equal human dignity.
It is this conscience we need to see functioning again if Britain and her European neighbours are to get rid of the shameful servitude of prostitution. It’s all slavery in the end, all a violation of human dignity. Do the politicians who want to treat it as a mere market want to see their sisters in it? No. And yet is not every woman in it also “a sister”?
So come on, Mr Blair. If you want the bicentenary of the slave trade to burnish Britain’s reputation for moral leadership, let us hear an expression of shame and sorrow for the slavery that still thrives under our very civilised noses. And then let’s see some real action to abolish it.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MerctorNet.
[i] “The New Global Slave Trade,” by Ethan B Kapstein. Foreign Affairs. November-December 2006.