International Law and Slavery

By Welton, Mark D. | Military Review, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

International Law and Slavery


Welton, Mark D., Military Review


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SLAVERY WAS WIDESPREAD and legally sanctioned for most of human history. Chattel slavery--the legal ownership of one person by another--was its most common form. Gradually, and especially in the 19th century, the growing condemnation of chattel slavery and the slave trade by an increasing number of individuals, groups, and eventually states culminated in widespread legal prohibitions against it. However, non-chattel slavery, including practices such as involuntary child labor and the trafficking of women for prostitution, continued in various places and guises. The persistence of these forms of involuntary servitude into the 20th century led to international agreements and efforts to eradicate them. Nevertheless, human trafficking remains a problem, one that often arises in areas of lawlessness and armed conflict and thus is of concern to military professionals.

A Short History of Slavery

The historian John Keegan notes that no one knows how and when slavery and the slave trade began, but he speculates that it was probably a common part of the social order for early pastoralists and steppe peoples, and it likely intensified with the advent of the war chariot in the second millennium BCE. (1) Slavery was prevalent throughout the ancient world, the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, and Roman civilizations developed laws and customs to legitimize and regulate it. Slavery was also extensively practiced in northern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, pre-Islamic Arabia, Southeast Asia, and Japan, and it existed, though was not widespread, in the Western Hemisphere until the modern colonial era.

Ancient laws and customs deemed that a slave was the legal property of another person. Identification of the slave as the property of the slave owner is chattel slavery. This characteristic distinguished slaves from other persons whose freedom may have been formally limited, such as prisoners of war or felons. (Through much of this period, however, felons and prisoners of war were sent or sold into slavery.) The power of the owner over chattel slaves was often unlimited, owners of slaves could resell, free, and even kill their slaves without legal restrictions. On the other hand, in some ancient societies such as Greece and Rome, slaves did have limited legal rights, including the right to own and transfer property, to marry, and to be protected against unreasonable treatment, although these rights were in all respects inferior to those of free persons.

Slavery in the ancient world served primarily military and economic purposes. The military frequently forced individuals into service as soldiers or galley slaves. Slaves also labored in public works construction in ancient Greece or in agricultural or mine work in Mesopotamia and in the Roman Empire. Others were personal and household servants for wealthy families and often provided sexual services to their masters or mistresses.

As Europe transitioned from the Roman Empire to the modern era, slavery persisted. One could become a slave, as before, by being taken prisoner during wars and invasions, or by being born of a slave parent. It became increasingly common for destitute parents to sell their children into slavery and for slavery to be the penalty for committing a crime or failing to pay a debt. The slave trade was a significant economic activity in many towns along the Scandinavian, English, and Italian coasts. During the feudal period, Europe's population was comprised of freemen, serfs, and slaves, and both secular and Church authorities recognized slavery as a natural, if regrettable, institution. They justified this view by quoting Biblical sources and emphasizing humankind's moral sinfulness and slavery's economic benefits.

With the demise of European feudalism, conditions became increasingly unfavorable to the institution of slavery: maintaining slaves was expensive, and a growing population increased the availability of cheap labor, making slavery economically less desirable.

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