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Over a century since it was abolished, slavery lives on

Latest update : 2008-07-11

On May 10, France commemorates the end of slavery, which was definitively abolished in April 1848. Yet, far from disappearing, slavery still exists today in many forms in France and throughout the world. (Report: C.Westerheide/C.Bauer)

On April 27, 1848, French politician Victor Schoelcher finalised the decree that would abolish slavery on all French territories. Great Britain had paved the way to abolition 30 years earlier, putting an end to four centuries of forcible exploitation of millions of men, women and children.

 

In 1948, these principles were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to article four of the newly formed United Nations' Declaration, “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

 

Yet, in 2008, poverty, discrimination, social exclusion and other factors that led to the flourishing of slavery centuries ago still exist. And, NGOs claim, so do modern forms of slavery. According to the International Labour IOrganization, at least 12.3 million people around the world are trapped in forced labour - one of slavery's various forms.

 

“Slavery doesn’t take the same form today,” says Sophia Lakhdar, head of the French-based Committee against Modern Slavery (CCEM). “We’re not talking about chains anymore, but about psychological pressure.”

 

Historically, slavery used to be about ownership. Nowadays, it takes a more contractual form, says Karla Skrivankova, trafficking programme coordinator at the UK-based Anti-Slavery International. “Employers hold the visas so they have absolute power to deport their employees. And they are able to change the conditions of work to ones that would qualify as slavery.”

 

Just like his ancestor, the modern slave is treated as a commodity rather than a person. He is forced to labour for no pay, with restricted freedom of movement.

 

Modern slavery covers a variety of situations. These fall roughly into five categories, though figures are particularly hard to establish given slavery's invisible nature.

 

  • Bonded labour is one of the most widely used methods of enslaving people. A person becomes a bonded worker when his work is required as a means of repayment for a loan. Debts can be passed down for generations. Up to 5.7 million children could be victims of debt bondage.
  • Trafficking is the transport and/or trade of people with the purpose of forcing them into slave-like conditions. According to the International Organization for Migrations, up to 700,000 people are trafficked annually across border to be forced into slavery.
  • Forced labour applies to people who are illegally recruited and forced to work under the threat of violence.
  • Of the 200 million children estimated to be involved in child labour across the world, a number are working in slave-like conditions.
  • Forced marriage can mean a life of servitude, sometimes accompanied by violence for the women and girls married without a choice.

 

 

It is next to impossible to draw a world map of slavery and no part of the planet can claim to be immune to it. In some African countries such as Mauritania or Niger, forced labour still exists today in its most ancient form.

 

But there too, growing public awareness is helping to bring more cases before justice. Hadjiatou Mani, a Nigerien girl who was sold into slavery when she was 12 and subsequently suffered years of abuse, is taking her country to court before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice in Niamey on the grounds that Niger failed to implement laws against slavery. ECOWAS court decisions are applicable to all its member states.

 

In France, 334 cases of slavery inside the country were brought to the attention of the CCEM in 2007. Most of the people involved had been used as domestic slaves. The difficulty, says the CCEM’s Sophia Lakhdar, is now to convince the courts to take better account of the process of enslavement as such.

 

A good illustration of this, says Lakhdar, is the recent high-profile case of former Nigerian football player Godwin Okpara, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison last February for rape and torture on his adoptive daughter. The girl had also been locked up and forced to carry out domestic chores for years. “I wish the court could have ruled that the notion of enslavement was not just secondary to that of rape,” she says.

 

At European level, the recently enforced Council of Europe Convention on Human Trafficking is breaking new ground. So far, ten countries, including several from Eastern and Central Europe, have agreed to implement it, a process that will be closely monitored by a specific body of experts. This alone sets it apart from the UN Protocol on Trafficking, says Skrivankova.

 

“It is the first international convention that looks at trafficking as an issue of human rights and not just crime control, and guarantees a minimum standard of protection and assistance to the victims,” she adds.  One of its most important measures is the possibility for victims of traffickers to apply for visas in the country regardless of whether they agree to participate in legal proceedings.

 

Date created : 2008-05-09

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