TCS Daily

Save the Slaves

By Uriah Kriegel - December 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Not many Americans know it, but December 2nd was International Abolition of Slavery Day. Not many know this either: the institution of slavery -- abolished 150 years ago in most of the Western world -- is still alive and well in many of the more shadowy parts of the world.

One place where slavery still flourishes is the Sudan, which is one of the most wretched corners of the earth. Sudan is mired in problems -- a ruthless civil war, intense religious, ethnic, and gender oppression, and, most remarkably, rampant and well-established slavery. At present there appear to be no less than 100,000 slaves in the Sudan (population, 35 million). Muslim tribes from the north raid pagan and Christian villages in southern Sudan routinely with the express purpose of kidnapping children for enslavement.

Last year, a Sudanese ex-slave, Francis Bok, published a book (Escape from Slavery, St. Martin's Press, 288 pp., $24.95) in which he describes in painstaking detail his tale of enslavement beginning at age 7, subsequently, his teenage life in servitude, and his fortuitous escape a decade after he was captured. As hard as it is to believe, in 2005 many people less fortunate than Mr. Bok endure lifetimes of slavery.

One of the main reasons our awareness of modern slavery remains so meager is that the flagship human rights organizations seem completely uninterested in the phenomenon. This is primarily because the perpetrators do not represent the kind of highly visible figures NGOs are eager to confront. Most human rights groups are driven today by a single, superficial principle: oppose the powerful and back the weak, no matter what the powerful stand for or what the weak stand for.

Perhaps the best example of such is Amnesty International, an erstwhile respectable organization that has, over the past few years, morphed at time into a well-oiled anti-American propaganda machine. (As I write this, the lead article on the Amnesty International Web site, is about the treatment of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram AFB. There is not a single mention of the horrors in Sudan on the front page.)

Amnesty International is an unfortunate case, but many NGOs reveal similar propensities. Today's slave-owners and slave-capturers are usually Muslim fundamentalists who ride the African plains on horseback terrorizing local populations. But on the global stage, they wield virtually no power. As such, they do not excite the imagination of the majority human rights activists.

Instead of raising awareness and battling the existence of real-time slavery, the International Abolition of Slavery Day has become yet another occasion to rehash arguments for slave reparations in the US. Whatever your position on the issue of reparations, financial compensation to people whose current lives are comfortable (by comparison) should not take precedence over the liberation of actual slaves living in complete misery and utter destitution all over the African continent. Isn't there something rather perverse about the fact that concern for the treatment of terrorists agitates many of today's mainstream activists much more than concern for southern Sudanese people in the thralldom of Islamic fundamentalists?

One group that stands tall in the fight against modern slavery is the American Anti-Slavery Group. This group's Web site, http://www.iAbolish.Com, is a remarkable resource for information about modern slavery. The group's activities include everything from awareness raising and government lobbying to assistance in slave liberation missions in the heart of Mauritania.

Furthermore, the group's founder and president, Charles Jacobs, seems well aware of the dangers of hating the powerful simply because of their power. In a Boston Globe op-ed piece from October 5, 2002, entitled "Why Israel, and not Sudan, is Singled Out," Jacobs exposes the Harvard-MIT campaign for divestment from Israel against the background of complete silence in the face of genuine atrocities committed in the Sudan. Why? According to Jacobs, Israel is powerful in a way the Sudan is not, so easily ignites the ire of those who are more interested in opposing the powerful than helping the world's true victims.

To some degree, the problems that attend the campaign against modern slavery bedevil much of the general efforts to promote human rights worldwide. Let's hope some of these well-meaning NGOs fundamentally reconsider their approach to human rights, of which the right to own one's body is paramount. After all, a right to one's own body is a condition of all other rights.

Uriah Kriegel teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona.


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