Private Enforcement of International Human Rights Laws: Could a Small Church Group Successfully Combat Slavery in the Sudan?

By Bixler, Amanda | Chicago Journal of International Law, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Private Enforcement of International Human Rights Laws: Could a Small Church Group Successfully Combat Slavery in the Sudan?


Bixler, Amanda, Chicago Journal of International Law


State-to-state enforcement is the paradigmatic method of punishing a state's violations of public international law. However, in the face of international political complexities, private citizens must sometimes undertake the heavy task of ensuring international legal protection for themselves. The recent situation in Sudan is one such example. Because of the need for Sudan's help in the war against terrorism, the United States is temporarily unable to pursue the usual means of enforcing antislavery mandates against Sudan's Khartoum government. A group of private citizens has thus decided to make an attempt at reparation by striking at a private entity that it sees as central to the evils it has endured-a Canadian oil company. Might this type of private enforcement prove successful on a large scale in combating entrenched human rights violators, untouchable by traditional government action? To what extent should private citizens be enforcers of international law? Were they envisioned as such under the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("UDHR"), and other such documents?

This development will illustrate how private enforcement-though perhaps nontraditional-may be one of the most successful methods of ensuring compliance with human rights laws, especially in the midst of international political pressures. And though it may seem a functionally dangerous practice to invite large-scale private litigation in politically tenuous times, private enforcement of international rights norms has long been contemplated by the Alien Tort Claims Act ("ATCA"), and more recently, the Torture Victims Protection Act ("TVPA"). Although the UN Charter and the UDHR do not provide private causes of action, more recently adopted instruments, such as the TVPA, reflect the modern need for greater flexibility in methods of international legal enforcement. In the Sudan, private enforcement may be the only way for private citizens subjected to slavery to achieve IMAGE FORMULA3

any sort of remuneration, at least as long as the United States continues to need the assistance of the Sudanese government.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that "[t]here is perhaps no greater tragedy on the face of the earth today than the tragedy that is unfolding in the Sudan."1 Sudan, Africa's largest state, is one of only two nations in the world currently recognized as engaged in the practice of traditional slavery. The United Nations Children's Fund ("UNICEF") estimates that Sudan has between ten and fourteen thousand slaves, while groups active in redemption efforts estimate that the number approximates one hundred thousand.2 In fact, "the accusation is made that slavetrading is done by government-backed, armed militias" while the government looks the other way, to compensate the militias for fighting in the nation's fifty-year civil war.3 Allegations also abound regarding Sudanese involvement in non-traditional slave activities, such as forced prostitution and forced labor. Traditional slavery is clearly in violation of international law, and some theorists reason that these non-traditional practices may also be categorized as violations of the international law of human rights.4 However, slavery is an extremely profitable enterprise; one estimate puts the profit from human trafficking as high as $7 billion worldwide.5 And when a foreign government gains astronomically from the institution of slavery-be it directly or indirectly-and simultaneously denies its very presence, perhaps out of reputational concerns, it will likely be difficult for the international community to institute formal anti-slavery measures.

However, the international community has certainly tried to halt the practice of slavery in the Sudan. During the past five years, the United States government has worked in conjunction with the United Nations to stop the atrocities in the Sudan and to help the Islamic Khartoum government reach a peace agreement with the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army ("SPLM/A"). …

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Private Enforcement of International Human Rights Laws: Could a Small Church Group Successfully Combat Slavery in the Sudan?
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