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Slavery Goes Global

By Ethan Kapstein | November 2006

Slavery in Brazil, by Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848).

The history books tell us that slavery was abolished once and for all during the 19th century. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth. Slavery is back with a vengeance, and it’s gone global.

So far the international community has done little to stop this scourge. But it’s not too late to start. Just as the Royal Navy stamped out the African slave trade a century ago, the great powers today could—indeed, must—use their mighty militaries to cripple the slavers.

The cause is urgent. Currently, between 600,000 and 800,000 humans (mainly women and children) are trafficked out of 127 countries each year, mainly in Asia and Eastern Europe. The demand for their services is worldwide. About half the victims are forced into sexual servitude, while most of the remainder are pressed into domestic labor, construction, and agricultural work. Some very young boys are forced to serve as camel jockeys in the Middle East, and other children are made to serve as soldiers in Africa.

The return of the slave trade is explained, in part, by its profitability. The average sale price for a slave today is about $12,500. Thanks to low contemporary travel costs (especially compared to the days of the African slave trade) this is almost pure profit. As a result, human traffickers earn about $10 billion per year. And slavers run remarkably few risks. In most countries, criminal penalties are light on the rare occasions that human traffickers are even prosecuted in the first place.

Almost always, slavers use the same tactic to lure their victims. They promise poor people in poor countries good jobs in distant lands. They offer generous loans—at exorbitant interest rates—to enable the victims to receive forged documents, travel to a new destination, and get established. On arrival in a distant country, of course, the promised job never materializes and the victim is forced to work to repay the debt. Slaves—as well as their families back home—are threatened with violence should they try to run away or inform the authorities.

What is needed to stamp out this practice? There are already plenty of international treaties on the books. In 2000, the United States passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which has since been strengthened by President George W. Bush. The TVPA not only provides a precise definition of human trafficking and imposes stronger penalties than ever before, but also enables the president to impose economic sanctions on countries that refuse to halt the trade.

Were the international community truly willing to end slavery, it would put its money where its mouth is and use military, police, and intelligence assets to do the job.
Those sanctions have rarely been used, however. The U.S. government seems unwilling to let a few slaves stand in the way of its relationship with states such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, both key oil producers and allies in the war on terror. What Washington fails to recognize is that countries that refuse to curb the slave trade are unlikely to be reliable allies on other issues of national concern.

Another part of the problem is that some countries—even close U.S. allies—favor a very different approach to ending the global slave trade. Some European states, like the Netherlands, seem to believe that legalizing prostitution is the best way to end sexual servitude. Others express the view that by promoting economic development in poor countries, the supply of slaves will be reduced, since people there will have better opportunities at home and will be less likely to fall into the hands of slavers.

None of these ideas has much merit. Illegal prostitution has persisted in the Netherlands as a cheaper alternative to the legal version. And economic development offers no hope of ending slavery anytime soon.

Were the international community truly willing to end slavery, it would put its money where its mouth is and use military, police, and intelligence assets to do the job. The U.S. Congress could lead the way by instructing the president, when the TVPA comes up for reauthorization next year, to engage in international military cooperation to halt this plague.

The time has come to tackle the slave trade once and for all, in the interest not just of the slaves themselves but also of all peoples with a stake in the smooth functioning of the global economy. Abraham Lincoln said it best: "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free." Halt global slavery today, and all citizens of the world will benefit.

This opinion piece is drawn from Ethan Kapstein's article in the October/November issue of Foreign Affairs on "The New Global Slave Trade." Reprinted by permission of Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006. Copyright 2006 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.

Read More: Diplomacy, Ethics, Migration, Global

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