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December 10, 2012 3:23 pm

When Do We Get to Celebrate the End of Slavery?

avatar by Yael Israel

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A schematic showing global human trafficking, with specific focus to women and children. Photo: Wikipedia.

This year marks the 150 year anniversary of President Lincoln’s announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.  In 1888, Brazil abolished slavery, marking the official end of the Atlantic slave trade.  But, more than a century later, unfortunately, it is difficult to argue that slavery has really ended.

The United States’ Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act was originally signed in 2000.  The necessary re-authorization, due since 2011, languishes in Congress.  The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children opened for signatures in 2000 and entered into force in 2003.  Nearly 40 countries have yet to ratify the protocol.  Although a signatory, Egypt’s new constitution dropped its ban on slavery, after Constituent Assembly members claimed that slavery and human trafficking simply do not exist in the country.  (The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 notes both forced labor and sex trafficking in Egypt.)  Domestic legislation throughout the world against human trafficking, when it exists, is frequently weak or simply ignored by authorities due to a lack of political will or a lack of resources.

In June, the International Labor Organization estimated that there were 20.9 million human trafficking victims in the world.  The limited media coverage of human trafficking tends to focus on reports of sex trafficking of women and girls.  Though horrific, these violations are merely the tip of the iceberg.  Forced labor in factories and plantations, debt bondage, and state-imposed forced labor make living unbearable for men, women, and children in every corner of the world.

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The most distressing of failures, however, is the silence encountered from major human rights organizations.  In 2012, Amnesty International made no substantial references to human trafficking.  The passing references they did make followed the simplistic viewing of human trafficking as a subsection of violence against women and children.  While these abuses are obviously horrific and need to be exposed, the suffering of the 9.5 million men trapped in trafficking situations also must not be ignored.  In 2011, the only substantial reporting by Amnesty on human trafficking was their reports on forced labor and human trafficking of Nepalese.  The only substantial 2010 release on human trafficking was a 10 year review for the UN Human Rights Council of the UN Protocol.

Push factors such as poverty, abusive family situations, lack of social security, lack of educational or employment options, discrimination against women or minority groups, difficulty in gaining legal work permits, and rampant government corruption lead people from their homes.  The biggest pull factor is the hope of making a living and helping to support one’s family back home.  Adults are then held by force, fraud or coercion in exploitative situations from which they cannot extricate themselves.  Children, lacking the ability to consent, are automatically considered trafficking victims when found in similar exploitative conditions.  These underlying socio-economic, political, and cultural dynamics which permit human trafficking of Sri Lankan women into domestic servitude in the Middle East, for instance, are the same dynamics that lead inner-city American or Eastern European women into prostitution, Chinese men into sweatshops, Guatemalan men into farm labor, and children into all types of exploitative situations.  Human trafficking on the whole, and many of these underlying factors in particular, are ignored by human rights groups.

The underlying question is how can they possibly justify this?  The most reasonable answer is that AI and other NGOs that claim a human rights mandate do not set their agendas and priorities based on the realities of human rights concerns. Rather, they are motivated by ideology, public relations concerns, and the limits of their research capacity. As such, serious human rights abuses in closed societies, or in our case, human rights abuses that exist in the criminal world, go unreported, or under-reported at best.  Instead, these groups focus disproportionately on powerful Western countries like the United States and Israel.  Even in the West, they tend to ignore human trafficking in favor of issues that are easier to research and are more likely to get them press coverage.  Why discuss labor trafficking when sex trafficking is much more likely to horrify the public?  Why discuss human trafficking at all when “sexier” topics get you mentioned on the front page?

This cannot be tolerated.  The fates of more than 20 million people hang in the balance.  AI and other NGOs cannot continue to take the easy way out and ignore human trafficking.  Most people assume that the slaves were emancipated and that slavery was abolished.  We should be able to celebrate this on Human Rights Day.  Instead, the anguished eyes of more than 20 million men, women, and children stare at us, asking “when will emancipation come for us?”

Yael Israel is a researcher with Jerusalem based NGO Monitor.

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