A Persisting Evil: The Global Problem of Slavery. (World in Review)

By Re, Richard | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

A Persisting Evil: The Global Problem of Slavery. (World in Review)


Re, Richard, Harvard International Review


Slavery has not been abolished. Although centuries of struggle and sacrifice on the part of anti-slavery activists have successfully made slavery illegal under international law, abolitionism triumph remains incomplete in reality. Conservative estimates indicate that at least 27 million people, in places as diverse as Nigeria, Indonesia, and Brazil, live in conditions of forced bondage. Some sources believe the actual figures are 10 times as large. To put these numbers in perspective, it is believed that 13 million slaves were taken from Africa through the trans-Atlantic slave trade that ended in the 19th century. Slavery statistics are so uncertain because surprisingly little data on the precise number, conditions, and locations of the world's slaves have been collected, a sign of the developed world's disregard for this rampant form of human-rights abuse. Such apathy is especially disturbing in light of the role the world's economic and political powers play in the continuation of this hideous practice, and could play in its termination.

Popular misconceptions about the end of slavery are in part due to the vast changes in the nature of slavery that have come about in the last 100 years. Whereas slavery was once a major financial institution that provided a foundation for many of the world's leading economies, organized mass slavery is now limited to the developing world, where a tremendous population boom has made human beings a readily available commodity. In the antebellum United States, slaves were expensive and so were generally kept healthy and fit to work for as long as possible. Now, slaves are cheap. An Indian fabric manufacturer today can purchase a child slave for one five-thousandth of what it would have cost a Mississippi plantation owner to purchase a field worker in 1850, in adjusted and converted money. Slaves now are worked to death or discarded instantly by their masters when health conditions impede their work. To be discarded is often to live in abject poverty away from any family, crippled by physical and psychological in juries.

There have of course been other significant changes in the nature of slavery over the course of the last century. Before potential solutions and responses to the problem can be evaluated, it is necessary to illustrate some of these changes.

Slavery in Sudan

The relatively well-publicized and studied slave trade in Sudan represents a kind of slavery especially common in Africa. Sudanese slaves are captured during military raids performed and supported by their own government. Northern Sudan, which is primarily Arab and Muslim, militarily dominates the comparatively defenseless southerners, who tend to be black and Christian or of a more moderate version of Islam than supported by the ruling North. In the raids, conducted by militias called murabaleen, men are killed while women and children are captured and put to various kinds of work, sometimes laborious, sometimes sexual. Perhaps 90,000 Sudanese have been enslaved and brutalized in this manner.

The Sudanese government in Khartoum has denied that slavery exists within its borders, but human-rights advocates have demonstrated that the government actually arms slave raiders, who are compensated for their troubles with the right to steal from their victims. Khartoum might be using the slavers to depopulate parts of the southern country that agitate for independence or that stood in the way of the construction of a lucrative oil pipeline that is part of The Greater Nile Oil Project. This project was funded by foreign capital, especially from the Talisman Corporation, which operates in China, Malaysia, and Canada. Activists claim that this pipeline has fueled not industry; but a human-rights catastrophe.

Slaves taken in war, sometimes as part of an economy that sustains a war or civil conflict like the one in Sudan, are an increasingly common phenomenon. The tendency to enslave children on account of their particular helplessness is another lesson taken from Sudan's example. …

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